pastured dairy

Yes, that’s pastured, not pasteurized.

Emmett and I are currently visiting a grass-fed dairy operation — a sustainable ag topic which, unlike pastured beef, hasn’t gotten too much media attention. While many restaurants and consumers have clamored for pasture-raised beef, organic milk seems to be the dairy of choice for the discerning, eco-oriented foodie. But if you’re really looking for a sustainable, humane milk option, grass-fed milk might be the way to go.

In a conventional dairy, cows live out their lives in stalls — stalls that are maybe eight feet by four feet (rough estimate, after seeing a barn that had been converted from a confinement operation). These ladies eat, poop, sleep, and are milked in the same space. They produce milk year-round, and are often milked three or four times per day. By contrast, pasture-raised dairy cows wander the fields in search of grass, their diet supplemented by a bit of grain — and in the winter, plenty of hay.

Pastured dairy seems a little more labor intensive, and yet in some ways it isn’t. The dairy owner’s son rose this morning at 3:30 a.m. to move the cows from the field into the barn and milking parlor. These four hundred-plus cows don’t need five cowboys to move them — just one young man and a well-designed system of lanes and small fields, all hemmed in by electric fence. The cows know the routine, too: they form a mile-long bovine line en route to the milking parlor. Once they’re finished milking, they simply go out the back door and find their own way back. They’ll saunter up the lane and go into whatever field is left open to them.

While it does take time to move the cows around the field — as opposed to simply milking them where they live — there are clear benefits to the farmer. It costs less to feed the cows, since they’re eating grass. The cows are healthier, because they’re eating grass — which is exactly the food that a cow’s 8 stomachs were designed to digest. They’re also allowed a dry time, during which they don’t produce milk. This pastured operation — located in snowy upstate New York — doesn’t move the cows into a barn in the winter. The herd overwinters outside, among windbreaks. And before you go all PETA on me about this, consider this: according to the dairy owner, a cow’s ideal temperature lies somewhere in the 40s (Fahrenheit). If the cow is well-fed, healthy, and in a herd (body heat!), it will have no problem whatsoever with snow. In my humble opinion, it’s a heck of a lot better than being stuck inside year-round — although apparently concerned tourists sometimes call to express concern over snowy cows.

Oh, and I mentioned that there are other benefits to the pastured dairy farmer. Dairy farmers work 7 days a week, with required hours from 4 a.m. – 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. That’s only the milking part; there’s obviously more work to it than that. If you let your herd dry up in the winter, you can catch up on all the stuff you’ve been meaning to do — and maybe, just maybe, take a vacation.

I’ll post some pictures when I get home and am able to upload them… and maybe give a more detailed description of how the operation works. For now, I’m off to explore the wonderful world of dairy!

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