When you hear mention of the benefits of grass-fed or organic farming, the focus can often be on what we can gain by eating the produce of animals reared by these more natural methods. However, livestock themselves have a lot to benefit from when farmers adopt grass-fed or organic methods. To help understand these advantages to farm animals, it is first important to first appreciate what is organic farming and grass-fed farming and the standards farms must comply with if they wish to assume these titles.
What Is Organic Farming
Organic farming methods are free from the use of artificial chemicals. For arable farmers this means that they cannot use artificial fertilizers to promote the fertility of the soil, instead they enrich it using compost and manure, along with rotating their crops and making use of plants such as legumes which naturally add nutrients to the soil. They equally can't use chemical pesticides to control pests; instead they can use natural pesticides, natural predators and by the mix and rotation of their crops to deal with or prevent this problem. Farmers with livestock must adhere to these same principles, but at the same time must avoid the routine use of antibiotics, the injection with growth hormones or any other unnecessary supplement for their animals. Grass-fed farming tends to adopt very similar principles, though may not adhere to them all if they are not looking for an organic farming status. However, what they must ensure is that all their animals are kept on the pasture for the duration of their lives. Some organic animals will receive a forage-only diet, while others will be supplemented with grain. However, all feeds for organically farmed animals have to be organic in origin. Animal welfare is a high priority for both methods of farming.
Organic Farming Standards
Standards set by the US Department of Agriculture to ensure the well-being of organically raised livestock include:
While 100% organic feeds are required, micronutrient supplements are allowed to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Antibiotics cannot be given for any reason at all (they are commonly used in non-organic farming to promote growth) and neither must growth hormones be administered.
Other measures to prevent ill-health such as vaccination are allowed.
If an animal is unwell or injured, they must be provided the necessary treatment and if this is a disallowed medication with regards to their organic status, their produce will be sold as non-organic.
They will have access ti outdoor space and grazing animals must be provided with pasture. However, on a temporary basis they can be kept indoor if this is to benefit their health or safety.
Is grass fed milk organic?
Grass-fed animals require ccess to pasture for the whole growing season and although their diet must be composed of grass, other plants that may be found in the pasture such as legumes and Brassicas and cereal crops prior to the grain stage, items such as hay and silage are also acceptable. Equally vitamin and minerals may be given. Both measures ensure that while the animals have access to their natural food-stuffs, the additional elements can be given so that they do not go short of food or micronutrients. No restrictions are placed on terms of antibiotic use, but it is often the stage that owners of grass-fed animals adopt a stance similar to that of organic farming methods.
Not only does outdoor access allow natural grazing to occur, but also enables livestock to display other natural behaviors, so despite being reared for farming purposes, the life of the animals is retained as close as possible to what would be normal for them. However, this isn't the only advantage of access to outside space brought by both organic farming and grass-fed methods of keeping animals. When they have outdoor space, which is in opposition to the cramped conditions of feedlots, animals are more likely to remain in good health, which is paramount to their well-being. When free to roam in the fresh air, infections are less likely to be passed on from animal to animal and behaving naturally reduces the likelihood of stress, which itself is linked to ill-health through the adverse effect it can have on the immune response leaving animals less able to fight off infections. The natural outdoor surfaces are also kinder to the feet of livestock than the hard floors common in intensive farming units, so they are less likely to go lame and if they do, recovery is usually easier.
Organic farmers ensure that not only is the diet fed to their animals of organic origin, but typical to their natural feeding habits. Certainly grass-fed farming allows this, with foraging mimicking their feeding behavior in the wild. An appropriate diet is essential for any animal to maintain in good health by preventing deficiencies and other problems brought about by an inadequate diet. This is a very different story from factory farms that provide a diet very different. Take intensive dairy-farming. Cows aren't just predominantly fed grains, but their intake tends to be lower in fiber. This has an adverse effect on their digestion, increasing the acidity of the portion of their stomach called the rumen. This can lead to a rise in acidity of the body tissues and inflammation, which is a cause of many cases of lameness in cattle. Feed that contains GM ingredients are also common place in feedlots. Not enough is known about GM food to know whether or not the use of genetically modified produce will have a negative impact on the health of the animals fed this or the consumers who then eat the meat and other produce from the animals. By steering clear of GM ingredients in feeds, organic farming methods ensure the safety of both livestock and consumers.
Factory farmers would tell you that they administer antibiotics as a preventative measure to protect the health of their animals. While this may be true, others administer them for the purposes of promoting quicker growth, and they would not even be necessary if animal welfare standards were maintained and they were not kept in conditions that left them susceptible to infection. As already mentioned, organic farming methods and those of grass-fed farming seek to prevent ill-health through natural measures. However, there is another good reason to avoid antibiotics in farming if they are not required and that is to stop the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It might sound dramatic, but this really is a public health crisis, as before long some infections will have no effective treatments left for them. In the US, 70% of antibiotics used are in agriculture and the resistance that develops in animals if spread to humans through consumption of animal produce, but use of manure on crops is another way by which the spread can take place. Overuse of antibiotics is thought to be behind cases of drug resistant salmonella and campylobacter in people and possibly responsible for antibiotic MRSA and E.coli as well. Unless action is taken to reduce antibiotic use in non-organic farming, the problems of resistance will only worsen.
Avoiding Growth Hormones
While organic farmers and those of pasture raised animals want to allow their animals to grow and produce items such as milk to the extent that they were intended to, those who don't adopt organic farming principles have more interest in maximizing the quantity of meat and milk they can produce. They achieve this through the use of growth hormones. Probably the most controversial is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH for short), which is intended to promote milk yields in cattle. As the name suggests it is genetically engineered; Monsanto took the gene that usually produces the growth hormone, modified it and placed it into bacteria to produce very similar hormones. When injected into the cows this stimulates production of insulin-like growth factor, which directly enhances the volume of milk produced. Although less than a fifth of dairy cows are now injected with the artificial hormone, this is unacceptable, particularly as the artificial hormone is not allowed in the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Milk from cows treated with rBGH does not need to carry a label, so you have no way of knowing whether you are consuming it. However, if you want to err on the side of caution, you can choose milk labeled as "rBGH free".
So what are the issues with rBGH? Starting with the impact that it has on cattle, their health and well-being is severely compromised when they are injected with it. Cows subjected to the hormone are nearly 80% more likely to develop mastitis, where their udders become inflamed and infected; this painful condition then requires treatment with antibiotics. The problem with this is made worse by cows that are not allowed access to roam outdoors, as they are more susceptible to the infection. Carrying extra weight as a result of the increased milk they have produced, can make it more difficult for the cows to walk, resulting in lameness, which may make even standing and lying unbearable. The demands of producing additional milk also take its toll on the cows' fertility, with infertility and pregnancy complications. Organic farming methods would not allow this suffering to occur for the sake of extra milk, but in factory farming it is worryingly considered an acceptable practice.
Besides the fact that it is genetically modified, that is not the only human health reason why it is disallowed in organic farming. Concerns have been raised that the hormone finds its way into milk and may therefore pose a danger to human health. While work shows that rBGH is present in milk, though at not considerably higher levels than natural BGH, this cannot be taken up by the body. However, what is more of a concern is the presence of insulin-like growth factor. This growth factor is found in milk and does influence levels of this in our blood; in fact, in adults who drink milk containing this, levels are around 10% higher than someone drinking rBGH-free milk. This is problematic as it promotes cell growth, so there is the potential that consumers of rBGH milk will be at greater risk of cancer. More work is needed, but a weak link with prostate, breast and colon cancer has already been found. Even if the connection between the two hasn't been proven, would you really want to run the risk that you may increase your odds of cancer, no matter how small?
Benefits for Everyone
As you can see in each instance, adopting organic methods with access to pasture can benefit both livestock and the humans who will consume their produce alike. Making a conscious choice to shun food produced using inhumane methods ensures standards of animal welfare are maintained, but you are also able to protect your own health into the bargain. You can be sure that a farm is organic or using grass-fed principles if labeled as such, as certification is required to provide such a claim. Supporting local farmers is another way that you can be sure of what you are getting, as by speaking to the farmers you can discuss the practices they use. This is particularly useful in the case of grass-fed animals, as the avoidance of certain farming practices such as antibiotic and rBGH use is not a given; you can only know by asking.
Although organic produce may come at a higher price, the peace of mind you get from paying this little bit extra, that you know they are promoting good welfare standards and your health is protected, is well worth it and helps to sustain these methods. Supporting organic and grass-fed farming allows these methods of agriculture to flourish, enabling these farmers to invest more into their farms to not only allow them to continue their businesses, but to ensure their animals receive the best treatment possible. The demand for animal produce from animals reared through organic farming methods will encourage other farmers to adopt the required practices, so that they too can be certified organic and the welfare of their animals can be improved.