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Is it harder to 100% grass feed a dairy cow than a cow raised for beef?

by (9402)
Updated about 15 hours ago
Created June 12, 2012 at 2:31 AM

It seems to be much easier to find local beef from 100% grass fed cows than it is to find local milk from 100% grass fed cows. Do others find this to be the case? I assume grain feeding has same negative health effects on cow and on milk as it does on beef? Is it harder raise a dairy cow on 100% grass? Does adding grain feeding greatly increase milk supply?

I've also heard that some farmers only give grain while the cow is being milked. I assume to keep them calm and in one place. Would this be enough to affect their health and their milk? And couldn't this be done just as effectively with hay instead of grain?


UPDATE: See response below linking to article about Sally Fallon's (WAPF) dairy farm. Great quote from Sally in the article:

???In all of our suggestions on dairy farming, we have allowed some grain to be given to dairy cows???up to 0.5% of body weight per day (we are giving about 0.2% of body weight, thus the cows are getting about two pounds of grain during milking).* There are two reasons for this. First is that in a natural setting, ruminants would be getting some grain in the seed heads of mature grasses. And second, dairy cows are more stressed than cows in the wild, producing more milk than a natural cow would???even low-production cows like our own. If we did not give the grain, the cows would be very very thin. By soaking in vinegar water, we make the grains very digestible for the cows.The vast majority of raw milk producers are giving some grain to their cows. Those who don???t are obliged to charge $12-13 per gallon in order for the farm to be economically viable.???

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41422 · July 29, 2013 at 4:46 PM

I've seen no evidence that grain destroys omega-3 fats or CLA. The exclusion of roughage is what causes these desireable compounds to be absent, not the inclusion of grain.

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9402 · June 14, 2012 at 2:56 AM

@Jake - in case you don't see it, I just posted a related question and would really appreciate your input when you get a chance: http://paleohacks.com/questions/127682/what-should-i-look-for-when-visiting-raw-milk-farm

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65 · June 13, 2012 at 12:23 PM

Mike, the Cornell article is the truth. But remember, they are talking about high levels of grain feeding. This would be on the order of 25-30 lbs of grain per cow per day. I feed less than half that. Grain feeding, like so many other things in life is fine in moderation. Could I get more milk production with higher levels of grain? Sure. Could I also have problems with acidosis, lameness, and many other issues? Yes! So I stick with a moderate amount.

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9402 · June 13, 2012 at 4:06 AM

Yes, very good to have a farmer's take though I certainly don't like that it's shattering my world view of grain-fed bad, grass-fed good. :) Would you mind checking this out http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/01/5.17.01/cattle_diet.html and telling me if it's complete crap? Or maybe it's only true at higher levels of grain feeding?

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41422 · June 13, 2012 at 3:04 AM

It's already fairly digestible, even without a vinegar soak.

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41422 · June 13, 2012 at 3:03 AM

Remember, PUFAs are quite low in ruminants (i.e. cows). The difference between a grass-fed cow and a grain-fed cow is a tiny amount of omega-3 (0.5% of total fat). Contrary to what paleo folks say, beef is a lousy source of omega-3 fatty acids.

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41422 · June 13, 2012 at 3:00 AM

+1 for a farmer's take. Too often paleo folks get hung up on human biology and forget about our animal brethren's biology.

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2417 · June 13, 2012 at 2:43 AM

You must mean raw milk. The regulations for raw in my state are crazy strict. Cooked milk? Can be full of crap.

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2417 · June 13, 2012 at 2:41 AM

Great answer, Jake. I grew up visiting dairy farms (vet's grandkid) and it's hard, hard work making a living via Dairygold or the like. People just don't understand how hard. (And most people don't even realize what cows eat - eg. silage.) It's a very screwed up food system we have. I feel very lucky to even be able to buy local, mostly grassfed raw milk.

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65 · June 13, 2012 at 2:38 AM

I can't answer your calorie question, but certainly feeding high levels of grain can cause a number of problems. There is a correlation between increased milk production and mastitis, an udder infection, but not feeding grain does not mean the end of mastitis. Mastitis is usually treated with antibiotics, but can also be treated homeopathically. I am trying to be in the sweet spot of grain feeding where it is economically viable, a decent amount of milk production, and not overloading the cow, causing metabolic problems, etc.

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9402 · June 13, 2012 at 2:23 AM

Yes, very helpful. Thank you. What percent of your cow's calories comes from grain versus grass? I have heard that feeding grain to a cow makes them more prone to infection, requiring more antibiotic? Have you found that to be the case? Or perhaps you are feeding a small enough amount that it is not an issue?

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9402 · June 13, 2012 at 2:21 AM

So does that mean you don't think the vinegar soak makes the grain more digestible or that the grain (without soak) is already digestible due to the fermentation in the rumen?

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41422 · June 12, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Not sure I think the whole vinegar soak does much for the cows, rumen conditions are very similar.

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9402 · June 12, 2012 at 5:07 PM

Great article. Thank you!

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9402 · June 12, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Great answer. Thank you. I have read that grain finishing a grass fed cow drastically changes the fatty acid profile of the beef. Is that true? The same is not true for the milk (e.g., DHA content?)

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9402 · June 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM

I think you are referring to raw milk, right?

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41422 · June 12, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Milk isn't as profitable as cheese, that seems a more likely reason.

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65 · June 13, 2012 at 1:18 AM

Speaking as a dairy farmer, there are two issues with 100% grassfed dairy.

First, that cow has been bred for decades to turn energy into milk. She will take it "off her back", which means she will turn her own fat and muscle into milk if she can't get enough energy in her diet. What you end up with is a thin cow who won't breed back and is more prone to other problems. Feed her a moderate amount of energy (grain) and she will turn that into milk and keep her body condition.

Second, without an energy source in her diet (grain), she will produce a poor amount of milk. Chances are high that it will be an unprofitable amount, meaning that I the dairy farmer will lose money and end up losing my farm.

I am aware of a handful of farmers in this country who choose to food no grain at all, and many of those are doing some sort of value added product which allows them to receive more money for their milk, compensating for the lost milk income. I would never stop feeding grain while selling commodity milk as I don't see the economics working.

Now, having said all of that....I have a value added product and am considering trying full grassfed. If it doesn't work, then I will go back to feeding a moderate amount of grain.

Hope this helps.

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9402 · June 14, 2012 at 2:56 AM

@Jake - in case you don't see it, I just posted a related question and would really appreciate your input when you get a chance: http://paleohacks.com/questions/127682/what-should-i-look-for-when-visiting-raw-milk-farm

1ce1ede0523cfc9f67f63eaa498882ae
65 · June 13, 2012 at 12:23 PM

Mike, the Cornell article is the truth. But remember, they are talking about high levels of grain feeding. This would be on the order of 25-30 lbs of grain per cow per day. I feed less than half that. Grain feeding, like so many other things in life is fine in moderation. Could I get more milk production with higher levels of grain? Sure. Could I also have problems with acidosis, lameness, and many other issues? Yes! So I stick with a moderate amount.

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9402 · June 13, 2012 at 4:06 AM

Yes, very good to have a farmer's take though I certainly don't like that it's shattering my world view of grain-fed bad, grass-fed good. :) Would you mind checking this out http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/01/5.17.01/cattle_diet.html and telling me if it's complete crap? Or maybe it's only true at higher levels of grain feeding?

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46
41422 · June 13, 2012 at 3:00 AM

+1 for a farmer's take. Too often paleo folks get hung up on human biology and forget about our animal brethren's biology.

D5d982a898721d3392c85f951d0bf0aa
2417 · June 13, 2012 at 2:41 AM

Great answer, Jake. I grew up visiting dairy farms (vet's grandkid) and it's hard, hard work making a living via Dairygold or the like. People just don't understand how hard. (And most people don't even realize what cows eat - eg. silage.) It's a very screwed up food system we have. I feel very lucky to even be able to buy local, mostly grassfed raw milk.

1ce1ede0523cfc9f67f63eaa498882ae
65 · June 13, 2012 at 2:38 AM

I can't answer your calorie question, but certainly feeding high levels of grain can cause a number of problems. There is a correlation between increased milk production and mastitis, an udder infection, but not feeding grain does not mean the end of mastitis. Mastitis is usually treated with antibiotics, but can also be treated homeopathically. I am trying to be in the sweet spot of grain feeding where it is economically viable, a decent amount of milk production, and not overloading the cow, causing metabolic problems, etc.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823
9402 · June 13, 2012 at 2:23 AM

Yes, very helpful. Thank you. What percent of your cow's calories comes from grain versus grass? I have heard that feeding grain to a cow makes them more prone to infection, requiring more antibiotic? Have you found that to be the case? Or perhaps you are feeding a small enough amount that it is not an issue?

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41422 · June 12, 2012 at 12:24 PM

The key to grass-fed product is not that it is the sole source of nutrition. The problem with CAFO beef isn't the grain-feeding per se, but rather the total exclusion of grass/roughage from their diet. Roughage is where you get the desirable fatty acid profile from. You can feed grain and grass and have a very appropriate and natural fatty acid profile.

Consider modern cows and their production, up to 150 pounds of milk daily, somewhere around 40000 calories in that milk, that's an energy intensive process, needs not likely met by grass alone. Of course, you could sacrifice production for feeding grass. You're less likely to have CAFO feeding practices in dairy cattle, you can't feed subtheraputic antibiotics in dairy animals.

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41422 · June 13, 2012 at 3:03 AM

Remember, PUFAs are quite low in ruminants (i.e. cows). The difference between a grass-fed cow and a grain-fed cow is a tiny amount of omega-3 (0.5% of total fat). Contrary to what paleo folks say, beef is a lousy source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823
9402 · June 12, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Great answer. Thank you. I have read that grain finishing a grass fed cow drastically changes the fatty acid profile of the beef. Is that true? The same is not true for the milk (e.g., DHA content?)

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3043 · June 12, 2012 at 3:57 PM

Yes, it is hard to get enough milk from 100% grass fed dairy cows. Even Sally Fallon (of the WAPF) gives her cows fermented grains at milking time. http://farmfoodblog.com/state-of-the-art-raw-milk-system-at-sally-fallon-morells-farm/

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9402 · June 12, 2012 at 5:07 PM

Great article. Thank you!

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159 · June 12, 2012 at 1:43 PM

I asked this question to a grass fed beef farmer. I can't vouch for its veracity but he told me that dairy cows produced much less milk when grass fed and the economics didn't make it worthwhile for him.

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2409 · June 12, 2012 at 11:19 AM

No. It is harder to find milk from grass fed cows because there are more REGULATIONS on selling it. At least here in NY. I have a dairy farm near me and they sell beef and cheese. (It is easier to sell the cheese from grass fed cows as long as it is aged 60 days first.)

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2417 · June 13, 2012 at 2:43 AM

You must mean raw milk. The regulations for raw in my state are crazy strict. Cooked milk? Can be full of crap.

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9402 · June 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM

I think you are referring to raw milk, right?

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41422 · June 12, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Milk isn't as profitable as cheese, that seems a more likely reason.

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633 · July 29, 2013 at 4:27 PM

I raise dairy goats and I never feed them grain. Trees and grazing and supplemental alfalfa only. Here's why. When you feed grain to dairy animals it destroys the omega-3 fatty acids and CLA in the milk. Even very small amounts of grain ruin it. Yes I could get twice as much milk if I grained, but if I wanted shitty milk I'd go to the supermarket and buy it. The whole reason I raise dairy goats is so I can control the quality completely, and that means zero grain.

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41422 · July 29, 2013 at 4:46 PM

I've seen no evidence that grain destroys omega-3 fats or CLA. The exclusion of roughage is what causes these desireable compounds to be absent, not the inclusion of grain.

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638 · April 19, 2013 at 6:06 AM

NZ cows all eat grass :)

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0 · April 19, 2013 at 3:13 AM

For all you out there. I raise grass fed beef, not to sell, but for my family. To all the people out there that think feeding grain does not make a difference. I find it makes a huge difference and i will never go back to grain fed beef as long as i have the option. My beef gets absolutely no grain, other than the seed in the grass itself. Just my opinion

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