Tossing cowpies at today’s New York Times “Greening the Pasture” story

Right idea, wrong approach: We were so happy to see the New York Times piece, "Greening the Herd," about a Stonyfield Farm-backed program to change dairy cows' diets to see if it might reduce their methane emissions and thus curb their contribution to climate change. Especially this sentence: "Since January, cows at 15 farms across Vermont have had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed — substances that, unlike corn or soy, mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat." Our smile abruptly disappeared on page 2, when we read that the flax used in the new feed is not from pasture, but is an additive: the flax is grown in Canada, then "often" shipped to Europe for heating to release the oil in its seed. The article does say that "if the pilot program was expanded…a heating facility would be built in the United States, and processing costs could be slashed." (New York Times) Are we missing something here? Doesn't shipping flax to Europe and back leave a rather large carbon footprint? And why just "mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat" — why not encourage dairy farmers to grow some of them for the poor creatures to actually eat? Somebody please explain this foolishness to us.

7 Responsesto “Tossing cowpies at today’s New York Times “Greening the Pasture” story”

  1. Derek says:

    It's quite simple really, feeding grass and flax only would be an incredibly inefficient way to produce milk.  If you had ever tried dairy farming, or heck..., even knew the slightest bit about the industry you'd know that margins are incredibly tight.  Corn is a far more efficient way of feeding dairy cattle.  It keeps them healthier, stronger, and capable of producing more high quality milk.  

    If you continue to get your information strictly from liberal foodie blogs, you'll never know the truth.  Visit a dairy farm near you, talk to the farmers, ask them why they do what they do.  It happens for some very specific reasons.

    Also, just for the record, corn is a type of grass.  It was breed into it's current form for human consumption, just as cattle were by the way.  It's designed as high quality, highly effient food source, but is fundamentally a grass.  

    While you're at the farm, you might also discover that if you put an ear of corn and some lush green grass in front of a cow, they'll choose the corn every time.  You wouldn't know that by reading blogs on the web.  You've got to get out and discover the truth for yourself!

  2. Sophy says:

    I completely agree, why not just feed them grass? They make it sounds like it's some kind of revolutionary idea.

  3. Kara says:

    To Derek: I grew up on a dairy farm.  The cows ate grass most of the year and only ate silage and hay in the dead of winter.  It's not a liberal foodie thing--it is how cows have been fed for most of human history.  My dad certainly was the farthest thing from liberal or a foodie.  Also, given a choice between ice cream and salad, I'd probably almost always choose ice cream, but that doesn't mean it is good for me.   So,  I'm not sure if cows 'choosing' corn is a valid argument. 

    I'd also like to point out that the terms liberal and foodie are not mutually exclusive.  There are a lot of very conservative people that are extremely conscious about their food and its relation to health. I have friends that are ultra-conservative libertarians and they are very conscious about food choices. That's like saying that all conservatives are pro-processed, chemicalized food. 

    Anyway, I read the article in the NYT too and thought, what in the world?!  I think we have a problem with the way in which farm subsidies and ultra-low milk prices have created practices that just aren't sustainable.  I'm not sure how realistic it is to put 30,000 cows out to pasture on some of these mega farms.  I'm not sure what the optimal solution is, but it probably isn't importing flax from Europe. Of course, I'm sure Stoneyfield will find a way to make up for the costs by raising prices on their 'high in omega-3 oil' yogurt.....

  4. Erik says:

    I only skimmed the article, but it doesn't seem that incomprehensible to me. They want to see if changing cows' diets will reduce methane emissions (without negative side effects). A quick and cheap way to find out is to import flax from Canada where it's already being grown, via Europe where it's already being processed. Yes, that has a carbon footprint. So if the experiment is successful, they'll figure out how to reduce it.

    It seems like what you want is for them to have started their own flax farms and build their own processing facility before determining whether it's beneficial. That works out great if the new diet is a clear win; but it'd be a big waste of land, cash, and energy if, say, methane reduction was insignificant, or was significant but cows got sick, or whatever.

    In other words, it's just a small-scale, short-term pilot program. It's worth asking whether they've got a carbon-friendly plan to implement it full-scale, but it seems like you're assuming the worst.

  5. Hi Derek: What makes you think I get all my information from liberal foodie blogs? If you had bothered to read this blog you just landed on before insulting my intelligence, you might know that I work for a local pasture-based farm in exchange for meat, eggs, and milk — yes, milk, from cows that do not eat grain except for what they find in the fields. (Corn is a type of grass, sure, but cows are only getting the grain portion — not the fiber that helps their ruminant stomachs digest it.) I also frequently interview farmers, including dairy ones, such as the interview with Albert Straus I posted a few days ago. And if you had bothered to read the Times article whose grain-feeding practices you're so reflexively defending, you'd know that the very dairy farmers quoted in there happen to be marveling at how much healthier and stronger their animals seem on less grain. Maybe you should get less of your information from industry trade journals.

    Kara: LOL on the ice cream vs. salad. Me too. Gimme ice cream at every meal and I'd be one fat cow.

    Erik: The article mentions that the study is modeled on what Group Danone is doing in France, where they are also relying on processed feed instead of pasture. Again, why mimic the diets of old, instead of simply trying to bring them more closely in line? It's an industrial solution to an industrial problem.

  6. Just because the cow would choose the corn doesn't mean you should feed it the corn. We raise pastured pigs. In the warm months they get 90% of their food from pasture, about 7% from dairy (whey from a cheese maker over the mountain from use) and about 3% from apples and veggies we grow. In the winter we replace the pasture with hay since our fields are buried in about 4' of snow. We don't buy commercial feed or grains for them. The pigs thrive on this diet.

    Sure, if I offered them corn they would chow down on it but that is primarily empty calories that produces fat. I'm not interested in growing fat pigs - it is the well marbled meat that sells so well, not the fat. Same goes for the cows, just because they want corn doesn't mean they should get it.

    Hopefully the Flax-To-Europe-And-Back is just a temporary test program thing. It does take time to prove something out like this to make it worth building the systems to handle them here. I won't argue if the flax is necessary or not although I don't like the idea of so much processing unless really needed.

  7. Your points about the Stonyfield Farm Greener Cow Program were all good, but here's some additional information as to why we think it's the right idea and the right approach:
    First, the national organic program requires that cows be on pasture during the pasture season, so the cows in his program are definitely getting grass when there is grass.
    During the non-grazing season, the omega-3 feeds, such as alfalfa and flax, are taking the place of corn, soy and other feeds that have much greater carbon footprints.

    Regarding transportation, it is a tiny part of the overall carbon footprint of the project(less than 5%), but it is absolutely a consideration. The heat-treated flax from France is only an experiment as part of the pilot program. We would never import it on a long term basis as it would be environmentally and financially prohibitive. If we believe it is more effective, we would build a plant in the U.S. or Canada. By using the "cooked" flax, by the way, it makes the omega-3s more bioavailable so we can use half the amount of flax.
    I hope this addresses your concerns, and to find out more, watch the Greener Cow Video at http://www.stonyfield.com/GreenerCow/index.cfm.

    Nancy Hirshberg
    Vice President Natural Resources