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Conventional versus Organic Milk Production – Do you know the difference?

Organic Milk PIC

In the 2011/12 dairy year 1.19% of total Canadian dairy production was organic

Jean L Clavelle

This weekend an interesting conversation came up about organic milk production.  And it’s shameful to admit but I realized just how little I know about it!  So this started me on a quest to learn more about the differences between organic and conventional milk and thought I would share some of my findings with you.

As previously mentioned I am in support of organic food production even though I do not purchase organic products for myself or my family.  There is obviously a desire on the part of the consumer for organics and so it is important for Canadian producers to meet those needs.  I think there are pros and cons to both production streams and a fit for both in our society.  This post is not written to encourage you to support one or the other only to share information on both types.

For a little background on organic milk in Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimated that as of 2012 dairy made up 11% of all organic sales in Canada.  And in the 2011/12 dairy year 218 farms produced 937,137 hectolitres of organic milk which represents 1.19% of total Canadian dairy production.  Significant numbers for sure and one can only assume they will increase.

The first basic difference between organic and conventional production is that all organic dairies must meet the requirements of the Canadian Organic Standards.  Just as in conventional production organic dairies require a balanced feed ration which include substances that are necessary and essential for maintaining the cows’ health, including large amounts of high-quality roughage.  In organic production however all ingredients must also be certified as organic and approved for use by an accredited certifying body. Organic dairy rations can not include GMO feed sources, and must be free of any synthetic herbicides, pesticides fungicides or fertilizers.

No dairy is legally allowed to use artificial hormones to increase milk production in Canada regardless of whether it is organic or conventional.  Bovine somatotropin (bST) is a hormone that occurs naturally in cattle which regulates growth and lactation.  BST has no effect on humans.  Recombinant bST (rbST) is a commercially produced version of the natural hormone and it can increase milk production by 10% to 15% but it has also been related to an increase in the risk of mastitis and infertility and cause lameness in cows, which is why Health Canada has not approved it’s use.  It is important to note that rbST has not been shown to have a negative effect on human health and its use is permitted in other countries (such as the United States), where it is considered safe.

Antibiotics can be used only when a cow is sick. When a cow receives antibiotics, she must be clearly identified and her milk properly discarded for a mandatory withdrawal period (based on veterinary label instructions) until the medication has cleared the cow’s system.  In organic production cows given antibiotics are required to have a longer withdrawal time above that required in conventional production.  Its important to note that each load of milk is tested for the presence of antibiotics prior to it being added to the milk supply regardless of its production method and any violation to this would result in severe fines for both conventional and organic producers.  I would like to note that using antibiotics is important for the welfare of dairy cows regardless of whether it is a conventional or organic operation.  No matter how good the care, some animals will get sick and it is imperative they be treated.

Nutritionally, dieticians say organic milk is not significantly different than conventional milk.  Interestingly enough the nutritional profile of dairy products for both organic and conventional can vary with season, genetics and feed source however all Canadian milk will meet the minimum nutritional profile guaranteed on each carton.

So! I hope this info helps you to understand some of the differences in how organic milk is produced compared to conventional milk.  But whatever you decide to purchase just know that our Canadian milk supply is healthy safe and tasty.

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Posted by Farm and Food Care on August 5th, 2014 :: Filed under Agriculture Education,antibiotics,Dairy cattle,milk,Organics,Uncategorized
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2 Responses to “Conventional versus Organic Milk Production – Do you know the difference?”

  1. Rob Wallbridge
    August 5th, 2014

    A well-written post. There are, of course, a number of additional differences that are not addressed in this post. Those interested in learning more can reference the Canadian Organic Standard here: http://bit.ly/1bH2ueg

    Perhaps the most significant is that organic cattle must get a significant portion of their daily ration by grazing pasture (during the growing season, of course). As the post mentions, these pasture-based and high-forage rations result in nutritional differences – most notably higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids: http://bit.ly/1clS4vW

    And always remember – no matter which type of dairy product you purchase, always look for the little blue cow that says it’s 100% Canadian!

  2. Jean
    August 15th, 2014

    Hey Rob, thanks for clarifying that!

    How do you quantify how much forage cows get from grazing? Is that they are required to be outside or that the forage is required to be grazed? Details were hard to come by on this point!

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