Grass Fed Dairy: Good for Vermont’s Farms, Land, and People
Choosing grass fed dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt from small Vermont farms, rather than conventional dairy farms or or even large scale organic dairy farms, has a huge positive impact on our food system and our health. Understanding the benefits of grass fed dairy has many similarities to grass-fed beef, which we highlighted in last week’s About Our Food post!
What Would Vermont be Without Cows?
Dairy farms play an essential role in Vermont’s physical and cultural landscape. For many of us, nothing feels more like coming home than watching pastures appear along the roadside, dotted with cows, with red barns and blue mountains in the distance. The ethos of small dairy farms has become instilled in Vermont values as well-- we cherish hard, honest work, independence, resilient communities, and connection to our land. Though the legacy of small dairy farms remains, in recent years family owned farms have struggled to compete in a market dominated by large, industrial producers. More and more, small farms across Vermont and New England are adopting grass-fed diets for their dairy cows, allowing them greater financial stability, while ensuring the quality of their milk, caring for their animals, and safeguarding the health of the land.
Better for Vermont - Farmers, People & Land
Grass-fed milk is labor intensive to produce, requiring a rotational grazing schedule where cows move from pasture to pasture, providing them the highest quality forage (grass and other legumes growing in the grazing area), and allowing the soil and plants in the pastures they’ve left to replenish. In conventional dairy operations, cows are fed a grain based diet. This means that farmers are subject to the whims of the grain market, and fluctuating prices can be tricky to navigate for small producers. Moreover, grass-fed products fetch higher premiums. Demand for grass-fed products have increased in recent years as researchers have touted the benefits to human health, animal welfare, and health of land and water resources. While conventional dairy farmers are forced to sell their milk at low rates in the commodity market, grass fed dairy farmers can sell their product at a fair price, allowing them to sustain smaller operations.
Grass-fed cows produce milk that’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids and Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA’s). These molecules are two important components in heart health, and have been shown to protect help protect from heart attacks. For many years, nutritionists warned that the high levels of saturated fat in dairy products could threaten heart health, but contemporary research shows that when cows are fed a grass-based diet, there are more nutritional benefits than risks!
Grass-fed dairy is not only more economically sustainable for small farmers, it also offers a ecologically sustainable approach, therefore protecting our Vermont farmlands. Through rotational grazing, cow manure becomes a natural fertilizer, promoting the health of the soil and the biodiversity of forage. Healthy pastures are a natural form of carbon sequestering, pulling carbon from our atmosphere through photosynthesis, and storing it in the soil, effectively combating climate change.
Raising Happy Animals
Grass-fed operations offer a humane and quality-based alternative to the quantity-based approach of industrial dairy. Rotational grazing allows cows to remain in the open air, rather than the overcrowded feedlots common to conventional operations. One of our producers, Butterworks Farm, describes themselves as a farm “where a cow can be a cow.” The dairy producers who we partner with at the Intervale Food Hub do not use vaccinations or antibiotics - instead, the supporting increased health and immunity of cows that comes naturally from pasture access. Grass-fed operations also lower the stress on animals, allowing cows to graze according to their natural physiological rhythms. These healthy conditions help contribute to the better nutritional quality of their milk.
At the Intervale Food Hub, we partner with four different dairy farms in Vermont:
Butterworks Farm, in Westfield, is certified organic and recently completed their transitioned to an 100% grass-fed operation! Using rotational grazing to increase quality and nutrition of their pasture, they were able to completely phase out grain supplements.
Shelburne Farms, where we source our cheddar, operates a grass-based system during the summer and aims to promote sustainability in every aspect of their organization.
Doe’s Leap Farm in East Fairfield produces organic goat’s milk dairy products. They are one of the few goat dairy farms in the country whose animals are primarily grass-fed!
Mt. Mansfield Creamery, in Morrisville is a family-run farm that follows a grass-fed diet in the summer, Mt. Mansfield produces artisan raw milk cheeses from the Holstein and Swiss Brown cows. Members with Omnivore and Localvore Packages will enjoy their delicious aged Havarti-style cheese this week !
Check out this episode of Stuck in Vermont about Butterworks Farm, Published by Seven Days.
Check out our producer’s websites:
In the Intervale Food Hub "About Our Food" blog series, we will talk about the farms, food makers, and sustainable practices that make our food special.
This post was researched and written by our intern, Eliza Guion. Eliza is currently a student at Colorado College, living in her home state of Vermont for the summer.