There is an alternative to keeping thousands of cows confined in a barn or a dusty dry lot, wreaking havoc on the community: small-scale family farmers can instead raise cows on lush pastures. Grassfed cows are healthier, and these farms are much better for the animals, the environment, the farmers and the community.

Better Animal Welfare

Overall, cows grazing on pasture are healthier, including getting fewer hoof and udder infections, common in cows raised in confinement. Their diet is more varied, consisting of the grasses they evolved to digest (sometimes supplemented with additional minerals as the farmer deems necessary), and can move freely and express all of their natural behaviors. Common dairy breeds like Holsteins and Jerseys do fine on grass, but some farmers decide to transition their herds to breeds even better adapted to an all-grass diet, bringing some much-needed genetic diversity to the dairy industry.

It should be noted, however, that cow housing is not necessarily bucolic on small farms, even those where cows spend most of their time on pasture. Many small farms use old barns, with stanchions or tie-stalls that tether the animals loosely by the neck, limiting their movement. In cold climates, cows may spend most of the winter in stanchions before being let out to pasture when temperatures rise.

Better for the Environment

Pastured cows still produce methane as a natural part of their digestive process, but that does not mean that cattle are inherently bad for the climate. Grasslands coevolved over millennia with grazing animals like buffalo and elk, and dairy cattle, in appropriate numbers, have the same positive impact on the land that these animals do. Well-managed grasslands have the potential to sequester literal tons of carbon dioxide and grazing plays a vital role in keeping those ecosystems healthy.

The size of a grazing herd is kept in check by the capacity of the land, eliminating many of the waste management and other problems that arise from thousands of animals. Instead, cows grazing on pasture deposit most of their waste directly on the land, where it breaks down naturally and fertilizes the soil. Pasturing systems called intensive rotational grazing keep the animals on small sections of pasture for short periods and then move them to the next section, allowing the just-grazed one to rest. The intense grazing, trodding of hooves and fertilization coupled with longer regrowth periods builds healthy soil structure and microorganisms and stimulates deeper roots and more lush pasture growth. Deep plant roots control erosion and make the soil able to retain more water, mitigating drought and reducing flooding.

Better for Your Health

Cows that get their nutrition from the diverse range of grasses they have evolved to eat make milk that is healthier to drink. Milk contains some of the essential fatty acids that the human body must get from food, including omega-3, which contributes to heart health and reduces inflammation, and conjugated linoleic acid, which has cancer-fighting properties. Grassfed milk has more of these good fats than organic milk — and nearly twice the levels found in conventional milk. Levels of carotenoids, which are beneficial for cardiovascular and eye health, are also higher in milk from pastured cows.

Better for the Community

Small family-run dairy farms are better for the local economy and community than megadairies, which make more purchases remotely and send profits out of state. Dairy farmers spend their money locally — not just on farm equipment, but in the grocery store and coffee shop too. A 2014 study estimated that Vermont’s dairy industry, where most dairy farms are still small (only 2 percent of the state’s dairies have more than 700 cows), brings $3 million in circulating cash to the state every day. And while many dairy cooperatives have consolidated and have distant corporate headquarters, some family dairy farmers still belong to small local cooperatives that return profits to farmers and support the community.

Family dairy farmers collectively steward millions of acres of open space, valued for recreation, tourism, natural beauty and ecosystem services like water filtration and wildlife habitat. In the six New England states, for example, the 2,000 remaining dairy farms tend 1.2 million acres of farmland and produce almost all of the milk consumed in New England. Just in Vermont, 900,000 acres — 15 percent of the state — is dairy farms and fields. The classic New England landscape of rolling fields and open pastures attracts new residents and tourism dollars — and is tended largely by dairy farmers. The same is true in other dairy regions.

Better for Workers

Pasture-based dairy farms do not rely on full-time, onsite labor like megadairies do. With smaller herds of  cows out to pasture, harvesting their own feed and leaving their waste to build soil, there is less need for human labor.

For dairies that are not grass-based and do still rely on labor, there are alternatives to the worker exploitation common at megadairies. The Milk with Dignity Program, developed by Vermont-based advocacy group Migrant Justice, requires certain standards of worker rights at participating farms, and includes rights education and a third party monitor to ensure compliance. Ben & Jerry’s is the first company to join Milk with Dignity, guaranteeing that all the dairy farms in its supply chain are adhering to the programs’ standards.

Better for Farmers — Sometimes

For farmers, transitioning to a grazing system can mean much lower costs — via reducing or eliminating feed, machinery and labor — and less work. However, cows exclusively eating grass produce less milk, so it is not a perfect trade-off. If farmers have to sell a lower volume of grassfed milk into the regular commodity market, they will lose money; but with rising consumer interest in and third-party labels for grassfed dairy products, there may be nearby processers that will offer a premium for grassfed. In that case, the transition can be a lifesaver for struggling farms.

Farmers who can’t make ends meet and don’t have a nearby processer buying grassfed milk have another option: they can market their own. Some dairy farms decide to bottle their own milk or make cheese or yogurt. By opting out of the commodity milk system, they can set their own price and capture more of the consumer’s dollar.

Some farmers have great success going this route, but it’s not for everyone. Like any value-added farm enterprise, on-farm processing requires more labor, specialized skills and often, less time farming, as marketing, administration and other demands take over. For dairy farmers, it’s expensive to process their own: equipment for a small-batch cheese operation from 50 cows can start at $75,000, milk bottling at nearly $100,000. Capital costs for a small bottling plant for just 175 cows are close to $1 million.

Milk: Not Just From Cows

Of course, not all milk comes from cows — or even from animals.

Sheep and goat cheese are increasingly popular in the US. The goat milk market is steadily growing too, expected to reach revenues of $15 billion worldwide by 2024.129 Dairy goat herds expanded more than 60 percent in the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, much faster than any other livestock. Unfortunately, trends in dairy goat farming already mirror those in other sectors: the number of animals is increasing while the number of herds is decreasing, which indicates consolidation in the industry.130

While Americans mostly stick to cow milk, people around the world drink milk from any number of  animals. In Tibet, where yaks thrive in the cold mountain environment, yak milk and butter are dietary staples. Camel milk is drunk in the Middle East, and many Americans are familiar with Italian mozzarella made with milk of water buffaloes.

And then there are non-dairy “milks.” Soy milk has been consumed across Asia for centuries, and has been popular in the US for a decade or more. Today, the market for plant-based milk substitutes is booming, growing 61 percent between 2012 and 2017, and includes almond, oat, flax, coconut and hemp, to name a few.131 Some in the dairy industry object to the rise of these alternatives, which they say are cutting into the market for cow’s milk. The issue has become so contentious — and the dairy trade associations and cooperatives have become so politically powerful — that the US Food and Drug Administration has gotten involved, and is expected to release guidance this year on what products can and can’t be marketed as milk.132

Building a Better Dairy System

Moving towards a system where cows are raised on pasture by family farmers making a living wage will require all of us to make all the efforts we can, as consumers at the grocery store and as engaged citizens making our voices heard. We need to make the best choice in the supermarket whenever we can, to get the better option (if the best is not available) — and we need to support efforts to build a healthier system for cows, farmers and consumers.

Consumer Choices: Finding Milk You Can Trust

If you’re sticking to cow’s milk and you want it grassfed, you’ll be glad to know that the supply is growing fast. That said, it’s not available everywhere and it can be hard to know which labels to look for to ensure you’re getting what you want.

Consumers who are used to inexpensive dairy may balk at the price difference between conventionally-produced and organic or grassfed. If you are financially able to do so, consider adjusting your thinking about this price and spending that little bit more as an investment in developing a healthier food system for all.


As the grassfed market grows, there is little regulation of the term itself. Some farmers graze their animals on pasture but supplement their cows’ diets with grain, usually to boost milk production. Milk from these cows can still be called grassfed. Some pasture is better than none, and that’s a good choice if it’s available.

For milk that comes from cows eating nothing but grass (including hay in the winter), look for labels that say “100% grassfed,” Organic Valley’s Grassmilk or the Certified Grass-Fed Organic seal and certification, launched by Organic Valley and Maple Hill in early 2019.


Unlike most other labels, USDA Organic is regulated by the federal government. USDA Organic dairy rules state that cows cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics; any use of antibiotics, even to treat illness, requires permanent removal of the animal from the herd. All feed must be certified organic, must not contain animal by-products, and the animals must not be continuously confined.133 After multiple investigations in the late 2000s revealed that some large dairies were not pasturing their animals, contrary to the intent of the organic standards,134 a “pasture rule” was added, mandating that all organic dairy animals must graze on pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year and must get at least 30 percent of their intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season.135

Some Organic Dairies are Failing to Meet Standards

However, recent investigations have found that some large organic dairies are not meeting these grazing standards.136 While farm size is not a definite indicator of dairy quality, moving many cows from pasture to milking parlor takes time, and at a certain point it is logistically impossible that operations milking thousands of cows three or four times a day could make the necessary moves and still give their animals sufficient grazing time.137

Additionally, organic dairies that feed grain as well as pasture must use organic grain. The US imports much of our organic grain because we do not produce enough to meet the demand for organic feed, but numerous shipments of foreign corn, soybeans and other grains labeled “organic” have been found to be fraudulent in recent years.138

Despite these questionable practices, many megadairies retain their organic certification. This is due to USDA’s unusual enforcement mechanism: USDA does not certify or inspect organic farms itself. Instead, each farm hires a third-party certifying agency to judge whether it meets organic standards. Most inspections are announced in advance, and punishments for violations are minimal. From 2007 to 2010, there were at least three cases of significant violations found on organic megadairies, but USDA issued no fines and all continue to operate today.139

“Industrial organic” hurts small organic farmers who are following all the rules. Certified organic megadairies are flooding the organic market with milk they have produced much more cheaply and with lower standards than small farms do. Organic milk prices for farmers have fallen and some organic and grassfed processors have dropped farmers due to oversupply.140 For organic dairy to have a strong future, USDA and the inspection agencies must enforce the organic rules, including on the largest players in the industry.

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