Large factory farms can still qualify as organic, but they can harm the environment and stress animals, promoting poor nutrition and illness. Photo via Flickr. Used under the CC BY 2.0 license

Not too long ago a press release from a big CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) called Natural Prairie Dairy crossed the desk of the Daily Yonder, proclaiming a new era for organic dairy production.  

It offered “a 21st century farm (with) 21st century careers.”  

A 21st century farm with more than over 4,000 cows, that is.  

The dairy is proposing to build an operation in northwest Indiana with 4,350 cows. The farm will produce 26 million gallons of urine, manure, and dirty water, according to the Newtown County Enterprise 

But don’t worry. The milk will be organic. 

There was a time when all food was considered “organic.” That’s because all food was produced organically. What that really means is that plants, eaten both by humans and food animals, derived nutrients from carbon based sources existing naturally in soil.  

In those days we were all 100% organic.  

We got that way when carbon laden animal manure and plant material gradually decayed, breaking down over time to become available to plant root systems. Farmers at first depleted natural soil nutrients, eventually learning to grow plants in rotations that were a benefit to yields and soil health. But science eventually found new ways to grow food and feed crops like corn, wheat or pasture without using manure or other decayed plants. The new plant food they made was not carbon based but nitrogen based brought about by molecule cracking processes like Haber-Bosch 

New pesticides arrived at about the same time so that conventional weed and insect controls through crop rotation could be postponed or eliminated altogether.  

That’s when most of the food we eat stopped being, by definition, organic. The result of that has been that as people become better acquainted with alternative sources of food, in order to cash in on the value of true organically grown food, many farms and food companies have tried to redefine organic in a way that complements their size and scope of operation, like that 21st century dairy farm mentioned earlier.   

They may not call themselves modern, or 21st century, but the good thing about 50-cow dairies as organic operations is that 250 acres can produce all the feed and forage needed to care for the cows and their calves over a year while utilizing their manure.  

An equivalent amount of land for 4,000 cows could be about 20,000 acres.   

Larger dairies have a tendency to facilitate their own compliance. Instead of having enough pasture for cows to graze through spring, summer, and fall—like the 50-cow dairy—they may have small patches of grass that cows are given limited access to, like kids at recess. Whether they do or not, they are also obligated to use “ample” organically produced bedding for cows in drylot, which is where these cows will be spending most of their time. And feed is purchased rather than grown on the farm. That creates at least an opportunity for loopholes as to whether or not it was really organically grown at all.  

A lactating dairy cow can consume 100 pounds of feed and drink 30 to 50 gallons of water every day. Four thousand cows would consume seven semi-truck loads of feed and drink 200,000 gallons of water every day, while exuding 460,000 pounds of manure.  

That’s about 84,000 tons of sloppy green stuff per year.  

It’s widely acknowledged that turnover of the cow herd is a problem for large dairies where intensive management places a strain on cows, making them old before their time. Injuries from crowding, hormone use, and poor nutrition are common. On the other hand, small dairies, especially traditional organic dairies, take better care of their cows so that old age is the more likely determinant of when a cow retires. The faster cow turnover rate creates problems for large dairy farms seeking organic registration. Just as they may have trouble sourcing ample supplies of organically produced feed and bedding, they also find it difficult to locate replacements when older cows fail. That means that sometimes even the cows themselves aren’t organically grown. When dairies try to hide their lack of compliance, fraud becomes a problem. (Here is the list of USDA rules for dairy compliance.)  

A small dairy is more likely to raise not only its own feed but to save back its best heifer prospects as replacements. It’s a closed-loop tradition. Large dairies tend to focus on two products: 1) milk and 2) all that manure.  

That’s a concern for citizens of a county in Indiana where a proposed 4,350 head organic dairy CAFO built by a “21st century” company located in Texas has residents concerned about contamination of a shared aquifer providing drinking water to the entire community. Location of the dairy on poorly drained land threatens purity of the shallow aquifer. It also place new demand on water reserves where cattle numbers and irrigation could deplete already short drinking water supplies.  

As far as Big Ag is concerned, bigger is always better. While folks in Indiana worry about their community, their newest, biggest neighbor has received recognition as the best of the best. But they have also had their detractors, which shows the tangled web of organic certification for large operations.  

On the other hand, consumers in Northwest Missouri have declared that trust is even better than organic certification, with their acceptance of Shatto Milk Company, a small dairy outside Osborne, Missouri, where they process 6,000 gallons of their own milk every day in glass bottles.  

Barb and Leroy Shatto took a chance and installed their own bottling plant where small groups of visitors, school field days, or bus tours regularly make the rounds—about 190,000 people every year, according to Iowa Public Television. Consumers across several Missouri counties support Shatto by purchasing their products, which includes eight varieties of milk. They also return empty glass bottles to the store, dairy, or home delivery trucks in the Kansas City area. While Shatto is not an organic producer, they do refrain from using hormones, instead using better feed and improved genetics to increase production herd.  

And unlike most large dairies, they don’t sell veal calves. Instead, they raise them on the farm for replacement cows, or they sell them to other farms.  

I don’t know whether some consumers shy away from Shatto milk because it’s not organic. But I do know people buy it because Shatto has something more valuable: trust. 

Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union. 

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