How Now, Industrial Cow?

As a dairy farmer, I use nature as my model. But most dairy farming today — and farming in general — ignores nature. This should concern not only farmers but also consumers, for the sake of their health and Earth’s.

Nature produces no real wastes, because the “waste of one species is food for another. Also, nature does not use up resources. Its ways are efficient and sustainable.

The typical industrial dairy is a much different matter.

First, consider the cows, diet. It is typically high in corn. Growing corn requires nitrogen fertilizer, whose production uses up a lot of nonrenewable fossil fuel.

Not all of this fertilizer stays on the field. Typically more than half of it is lost, polluting groundwater or flowing downstream through the Mississippi River basin to feed a process that sucks out oxygen and drives life from a New Jersey-size patch of the Gulf of Mexico.

Most corn producers also use pesticides, which further poison the landscape. And because corn must be replanted annually, it promotes soil loss through erosion from fields left bare to wind and rain much of the year.

Waste is another problem with industrial dairies, where cows are confined to feedlots or barns. Manure accumulates in lagoons. Eventually it must be hauled to crop fields. With thousands of cows in a typical industrial dairy, it often is difficult to find enough fields close by to accommodate the manure, which can end up fouling the air or spilling into streams.

In place of this industrial model, I run my farm based on ecology, an understanding of the interconnection of living things and their environment.

The most striking feature of a dairy farm designed and operated on ecological principles is that the land around the milking facility is pasture of perennial grasses and legumes covering the ground year-round. It does not erode. It does not require pesticides.

The cows harvest their own feed by grazing on these plants. The environmentally costly process of growing corn and transporting it is avoided.

There is no need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. As the animals move about, they deposit manure, a natural fertilizer. This manure is not concentrated, so it breaks down quickly and is thereby less likely to pollute air and water.

Pasture dairies make sense financially. Milk production per cow is less, but milk production per acre, when acres used to grow feed crops are included, is comparable. Studies at the University of Wisconsin show that grazing dairies are as profitable, or more profitable, than industrial dairies.

What’s more, cows on pasture are healthier and live longer than those on a high-corn diet, which is not their natural food. And research is beginning to suggest that milk from grazing cows is more healthful because it has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene and conjugated linoleic acids — substances that may be useful in helping to prevent heart disease or certain cancers.

Given all these benefits, it is time we get serious about focusing our agricultural research, education and government policy on farming that uses ecology as its guide. And we should begin requiring industrial agriculture to pay for the environmental costs that it imposes on our planet — costs now borne by society as a whole or charged to future generations.

FRANCIS THICKE and his wife, Susan, have an organic, grass-based dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. He has served as national program leader for soil science for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.