Monday, June 7, 2010

What’s the Difference Between Traditional “Regular” Milk and Organic Milk?

Traditional or organic cows?
The dairy case if full of choices. But one thing that’s consistent is the nutritional value, purity and safety of dairy. Milk and dairy products are among the most tested and regulated foods in the country. All dairy farms and processing plants in the U.S. must meet strict standards for content, wholesomeness and product safety. America’s dairy farmers are dedicated to providing delicious, safe, high-quality milk.

So what’s the difference between traditional “regular” and organic milk? Organic milk refers to the production process not the product itself. Organically-produced and traditionally-produced milks are identical in their composition, nutritive characteristics, purity and safety attributes.

First, let’s look at what’s the same about traditional and organic milk:

All Milk is Antibiotic-Free – Every tank load of milk entering a dairy processing plant in the U.S. is strictly tested for animal drug residues and disposed of if it tests positive. (see my May 19, 2010 blog titled The Truth about Antibiotic Use)

All Milk is Pesticide-Free - There are no pesticides in milk. Pesticides are not a health concern in any milk products.

All Milk Contains Hormones – All foods derived from animals contain trace amounts of protein hormones, usually a few parts-per-billion. The level of hormones is the same in whatever milk you drink. All milk contains the same levels of bovine somatotrophin (bST) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Research shows hormones are present in tiny quantities and are digested harmlessly in the human stomach just like any other protein you eat.

All Milk is Pasteurized – Pasteurization is the process of heating raw milk at a high enough temperature for a sufficient length of time to make milk bacteriologically safe and increase its keeping quality. Most organic milk is ultrapasteurized or ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized for a longer shelf life. Milk that is ultrapasteurized or UHT is heated to a higher temperature than pasteurized milk therefore giving it a longer shelf life. Some states allow raw milk to be sold, but all fluid milk sold in Ohio must be pasteurized.

All Milk has similar Fat and Protein content - Milk fat content is adjusted based on the variety; whole milk, 2% reduced-fat milk, 1% lowfat milk or fat-free milk. Therefore, 2% traditional milk and 2% organic milk contain the same fat and protein content.

All Milk is Nutrient-dense - Milk provides a high level of essential nutrients compared to its calories. All milk contains the same levels of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, phosphorus, riboflavin and niacin.

All Dairy Farms are Inspected – Inspectors from the state department of agriculture visit all dairy farms, unannounced, to examine the facility for cleanliness, equipment operations, milk temperature, correct medicine labeling & storage, adequate hot water, and acceptable ventilation & lighting to name a few. Inspectors visit several times annually. The same regulations apply to all types of dairy farms – small or large, organic or traditional, regardless of management techniques.

Farm size - Both production systems (traditional and organic) include farms of all sizes.

The end product is the same, so what’s the difference between traditional and organic? One big difference is price. Organic dairy products are more expensive to purchase in the grocery store.

Organic livestock production prohibits the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals and the use of hormones. Again, no milk contains antibiotics and all milk has the same small level of hormones regardless of management practices. Organic dairies must feed their cows organic feed which is produced without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers or genetically-modified seeds. Organic cows are required to have access to pasture.

Traditional dairy farms are allowed to use new technology approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can utilize chemicals when growing crops. It’s important to know there are rules and guidelines that dictate the quantity and methods of purchasing, storing and applying herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. It doesn’t make economic sense to overuse these chemicals.

Environmentally Responsible
Consumers assume that organically grown crops are more environmentally friendly. However, organic production methods are far less efficient than the modern methods used by traditional farmers. Science proves utilizing modern technology and management practices to maximize each cow’s milk production reduces green house gas (GHG) emissions from dairy. Traditional milk production is environmentally responsible because traditional cows produce twice as much milk as organic cows. This efficiency improves environmental sustainability by utilizing less feed, water, land and fuel resources and produces less manure. Organic farming requires more land and more animals for the same output.

The Bottom Line
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance and safety.”

According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “It is important for food and nutrition professionals to know that conventionally, rbST-free, and organic milk are compositionally similar.”

Marketing claims that organic milk is different from, and better than, traditionally produced milk have not been scientifically sustained. In terms of quality, safety and nutrition, there’s no difference. Production and management methods differ from dairy to dairy but the final product on the store shelf is the same. All milk contains the same combination of nutrients that make dairy foods an important part of a healthy diet.

My husband and I grew up drinking traditional milk, feed our family traditionally produced dairy products and operate a traditional dairy. I know we produce a high quality product and we are proud of the way we operate our farm. Moms like me want to provide our children with healthy and nutritious foods. I want other moms to feel confident when they purchase traditional dairy they are getting a safe, high quality and nutritious product that is second to none.


  1. Thank you for this post. It makes some good points. I do have to note that on our organic dairy farm, we have found that our production level both for crops and milk did not decrease when we moved from traditional to organic. In fact, our production keeps increasing each year as the health of our pastures improves. Due to the fact that our cows graze 6 months out of the year, we use land to grow corn and other crops and use less fuel for planting and harvesting.

    Consumers need to know that ALL milk is safe, nutritious and produced by hardworking farm families. Thank you for this post from a fellow dairy mom.

  2. Thank you...thank you...thank you!!
    We're dairy farmers from NY...and I appreciate people who try to get the word out about traditional vs. organic milk. We've found that some (NOT all) organic farmers really aren't totally organic, anyway. There really are not enough standards and checks for the organic farmers. (Before I tick anyone off, there are MANY who do obey the "rules", etc. and are truly organic!!) Could also mention what the butcher said about the organic cows, but it's too gross!!
    Anyway, thanks for all you do!

  3. Great post. I am not really "anti-organic" but it is a not what I would choose for my family, especially as a traditional turkey farmer.


  4. It's not a question of traditional vs. organic.
    The real question is pasteurized vs. organic raw milk.
    At least in Ohio you can still have raw milk through a herd-share.
    I've not had the pleasure of drinking raw milk but I think the choice should be mine not the government's.

    Thanks for the informative post Brenda.

  5. Hi Brenda - Great post, I'm really glad I came across your blog!

    Sorry to contact you through the comments form, but I'm hoping to get in touch with you via email about a tractor safety project I'm working on. Would you mind emailing me at when/if you have time?

    Thank you. :)

    Brittany (with Kubota Tractor Corporation)

  6. Brenda, Please join Facebook so we can get your blogs as they are written. You do great work, lots of great facts. If you do join,please "friend" me so I don't miss anything.

  7. Good post! Thanks for telling the real dairy story.

  8. Belva

    You can do a RSS feed (it's the orange square with white 'echo-looking' lines in it. You can ask to subscribe to a feed of this blog. It will then update when a new one is posted. Your RSS feed subscriptions will then be in your 'favorite' tab under feeds. Anything that appears in bold has been updated and has something new. you can do this for any website that shows the orange square by your 'home' button on your webpage in the upper right corner. Hope this helps!

  9. What about the difference in the milk from grass-fed dairy cattle? There is evidence to indicate that grassfed milk and meat are healthier for humans than that of animals raised in confinement and fed a diet that is unnatural to them.

    In Ohio we're fortunate to have 2 great local dairies, Snowville Creamery and Hartzler Family Dairy. Local, grassfed, environmentally sustainable and delicious!

  10. Putting animals on pasture is an option for some dairy farmers during part of the year. In the Midwest, it's not possible to pasture animals year-around. We work with a nutritionist to make sure our cows have all the nutrients they need to be healthy and productive to produce quality milk. You will find different management practices at different dairy farms but it's important to remember all milk contains the same combination of nutrients that make dairy products an important part of a healthy diet. Whatever type you choose, you can feel good about consuming milk, cheese and yogurt.

    Regarding environmental sustainability, science proves dairy farmers are good stewards of the environment. See my blog Dairy Farmers - The Original Environmentalists @

    Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and post a comment.

  11. But what about ethically? I generally disagree with making a cow pregnant year after year. Is this process the same with organic milk?

  12. Cows have a calf about every 12 months. This is the same with traditional and organic dairy farms. Cows must have calves in order to produce milk and sustain the herd. Both traditional and organic dairy farmers have a responsibility to provide excellent care for their animals and the majority of farmers do just that.

  13. Angie Johnson-Indianapolis, INAugust 16, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Thank you so much for the clarification between the two. Fact is, that there really doesn't seem to be much difference in the end product, which was what my concern was. I have heard all this talk that it causes early puberty and that is what scared me when it came time for my baby girl to be able to switch to whole milk. My husband then told me that he looked up the milk that is available to us here and that there was no growth hormones used and that made me feel so much better, but this really helped a lot. Thank you again!

  14. "Grass fed" is not the same thing as "out on pasture year round". There are many grass fed dairy cows in states with cold winters. In fall and winter the cows are fed hay from the same pastures they graze in the warmer months.
    Please see this link for information about the differences between milk from grass fed cows vs. milk from cows fed grain.
    It appears there is a difference. What does the statement that "milk is milk" mean? Surely, we all know that milk is milk.
    In your blog you present yourself as knowledgeable authority on the nutritional value of milk. As a dairy farmer you are knowledgeable about farming, but consider that there might be things you don't know about the composition and nutrition of milk.

  15. Thank you for reading my blog. The article you’ve referenced does not accurately represent today’s dairy industry. It’s obviously biased towards pasture-based operations.

    Healthy, well-fed cows produce quality milk. We know our cows are receiving all the nutrients they need because we work with a dairy cattle nutritionist who develops a feed recipe for each group of animals. This recipe is modified as the cow’s needs change based on age, stage of lactation (where they are in their milk cycle), gestation (pregnancy status), feed availability and other factors.

    Each ration is carefully formulated to manage the health, well-being and productivity of our animals from calf to heifer to milk cow to dry cow. Each group of animals receives the exact nutrients they need to thrive.

    The feed ingredients are tested by a laboratory for nutrient levels of protein, fibers, fat, and minerals. We also receive weekly test results regarding the component levels in our cow’s milk. These components include butterfat, protein, and MUN (milk urea nitrogen). The correct MUN levels ensure cows are optimizing the protein in their diet.

    Our nutritionist evaluates the feed ingredients and milk composition tests to develop a balanced ration that will meet the needs of each group of animals. It’s important that cows receive the correct amount of energy, protein, fat, starch and other nutrients – not too much and not too little. We manage the herd for optimal health and well-being in the lives of our animals.

    Regarding the information I’ve presented here about milk, all are well documented facts. I’m not a nutrition expert; however I am very familiar with the composition and nutrient value of milk.

  16. Organic milk is more expensive because to feed and allow pasture grazing costs more. However, to me it is worth the additional cost since from what I have seen and experienced with organic dairy farms is that the animals life more closely resembles it's natural heritage despite domestication. I do believe there's merit in both types of dairy farming since not all can afford organically produced milk.
    Cindy, Northern California

    1. Thanks for sharing your opinion Cindy. If you visited an organic and traditional dairy, it would be difficult to tell which was which. Dairy farms have a lot in common, regardless if they are organic or traditional.

      The #1 priority at our farm, and most dairy farms I’ve been to, is providing excellent animal care. I guarantee the cows on our traditional dairy farm are just as content, comfortable, happy and well cared for as the cows on an organic farm. Production methods and management styles vary from farm to farm, organic or traditional farm, but much is the same.

      Not only are the cows on both types of farms treated well, but there is no difference in the milk they produce. It’s great we have so many choices in the grocery store. Thanks for choosing to consume real dairy products!

  17. I have a lot of issues with this article, but I'll just point out a few. First, your focus is on conventional versus organic milk, which are not the only milk options available (ex: Hartzler and Snowville fall into neither of these categories).

    Secondly, a cow's natural diet is grass. There is no need for a "nutritionist" if you feed the cow its natural diet...grazing on the pasture and supplemented with hay during the cooler months if needed. As another poster pointed out, there are differences in the nutritional value of grass-fed versus grain-fed milk.

    Also, you failed to mention homogenized vs. non-homogenized milk. Homogenization changes the molecular structure of the milk. So no, not all milk is equal.

    I will agree with you though that the organic milk sold in the grocery stores isn't any better than conventional milk, which is why I purchase neither.

    1. To address your comments, Hartzler and Snowville milk are specific brands that market their product as better than “other milk”. Some people choose to pay a premium to purchase these products. I’m not one of them. I’m sure they are good quality milk, just like any other brand available in the store. If you took a sample of these milks along with traditional, organic or whatever brand you choose, you would find little or no difference in nutritional value and everything else I’ve mentioned in this post.

      Are you a dairy cattle nutrition expert? When making feed choices at our farm, we consider the nutritional needs of our cows. We work with cattle nutrition experts, science and experience. There is more than one way to feed a cow.

      Homogenization is the process of breaking up fat globules to allow a smooth consistency. If milk isn’t homogenized, the cream separates and rises to the top of the container. Both homogenized and non-homogenized milk both contain the same combination of nutrients that make dairy products an important part of a healthy diet.

    2. Yes, the nutrition labels for all milk may look the same, but there's more to it. Let's take fat for example. For whole milk across all different milk types, the amount of fat will be the same. However, if you look at the specific type of fat, it is different between grass-fed and grain-fed. Grass-fed milk has more Omega-3s and less Omega-6s than grain-fed milk. Grass-fed milk also has more beta carotene than grain-fed milk, due to the high beta carotene content of the grass that the cows graze on.

      There is a theory that non-homogenized milk, with it's fat globules in the natural state, allow the milk to carry the fat-soluble vitamins more effectively throughout the body. I want my milk to be as natural as possible, which means that I do not want the molecular structure altered through homogenization. Having to shake my milk prior to pouring does not bother me.

      I'm sorry to have put you on the defensive, but I just wanted to point out that not all milk is created equal. There really are differences. And there are many people who prefer their milk to be as natural as possible, which means grass-fed, non-homogenized, low temperature pasteurized, and with no artificial vitamins added in. Luckily for you, there are also others who are content drinking traditional milk!

    3. I’m glad you drink milk and appreciate the nutrients it provides. Milk is a natural product. The only ingredients added to white milk are vitamin A and vitamin D. I realize when you pay a premium for a certain type of milk, you want to believe that expensive milk is superior in some way. The reality is all milk delivers the same combination of nutrients and goes through the same tests for quality and safety. There might be very small differences, but they are so minor it doesn’t make a difference when it comes to product quality, nutrition and safety.

      Most milk is co-mingled, so when you purchase dairy products they contain milk from more than one farm. The feed ingredients vary from farm to farm. Most dairy cows eat a variety of feeds, including grass and grain. It’s not one or the other like some marketing labels lead people to believe.

      We have choices of traditional, organic, homogenized, non-homogenized, pasteurized, or raw (it’s legal to sell raw milk in some states, it’s not legal to sell in Ohio). Offered in a variety of fat levels (whole, 2%, 1%, or non-fat). No matter which you choose, they all contain the same nutrients and are wholesome and safe.

  18. Thank you for such a well-rounded, thoughtful and informative post.
    I have always wanted to be a dairy farmer, but because I live in Canada where dairy farming is regulated under the Quota System I would need to win a large lottery first before venturing into dairy farming. I milk dairy goats instead.
    One thought about the comments posted by "Anonymous". It's unfortunate that this person will not use their name while they are busy trolling your post, but I guess this person could not see any other way of commenting.
    Kudos to you for your common sense and calm replies to Anonymous the Troll, even though he/she/it stated at one point that they were "sorry to have put you on the defensive", which I never saw anywhere in your replies to Anonymous the Troll.
    Thank you again for your great and very informative blog. I look forward to continuing to read your future posts and will spend part of the holiday season reading your previous posts. Cheers~Lisa from Canada

  19. Yes, but curious about Omega 3's and other rich vitamins that are found when animals are able to forage on true fresh pasture? I never understood the economics of farming the land around the barns and having such extensive barns for a foraging animal. It seems the industry norm but I know my horses and cattle prefer to be outside and they MUCH prefer grass over hay or other forages (with the exception of grain). WK Kellogg has a great robotic operation I spent some time learning about. They rotate and test milk quality based on type of pasture. The robotic system is really an interesting, but expensive change. Probably easier for newer operations to start (if starting small).

  20. I am a Certified Crop Advisor, ag specialist, and small cover crop seed business owner. I work with a few of the dairies in my area and I agree with you that the cattle raised on traditional dairies are treated very well. I have seen how people within agriculture have divided themselves over the traditional vs. organic topic. As an avid advocate for agriculture in general this is something that has to stop, and I am not saying that insinuating that that is what you are doing with your blog, I understand what you are trying to convey. I try to do the very same thing, however I am also not against those who choose to purchase or produce a different type of product, as you have also shown you are not against. I will say that we drink traditional milk most frequently due to cost, but I have had organic milk as well, and quite honestly I can taste a difference in the ones I have tried for whatever reason. The organic milk I tried had a "creamier/sweeter" taste to me. Again I will not claim to be an expert in the dairy field, and I am not 100% sure why there was a taste difference, but it was evident nonetheless. I like your blog posts and am glad I ran across them. Don't let hateful people like the anonymous commenter bother you, just keep doing what you do, and help advocate for agriculture as a whole.

    1. Thanks for your comments Lance. I appreciate your point of view. The main reason traditional and organic milk tastes different is most likely because of the way its processed. The majority of organic milk is pasteurized at a much higher temperature giving it a different flavor.

  21. I will say that one of the dairies I deal with through my seed business informed me that when they started working with me on cover cropping their fields behind silage, and allowing their cattle to graze those covers, they actually did get a slight increase in milk production. Comically the dad of the farm told me during the first season of cover crops he was ready to kill me because his cows would not eat their feed ration after they had been introduced to the grazing of the covers. He said they would walk through the barn past the feed troughs and would stand at the gate that led to the cover crop fields and bawl until he turned them in to it. He said he just knew his production was going to decrease, and he was quite angry with me. However, shortly after his truck driver asked him what he had changed in his operation. Initially the farmer told him nothing. The driver asked if they had changed their feed ration. The farmer told him the only thing they had changed was that they had allowed the herd to graze the covers, and asked why he wanted to know. That's when the driver told him to keep doing whatever he was doing because his production was up. Needless to say the farmer liked me a little more at that point and we have continued to work together to improve his operation. Their fields are doing better since they have started the covers/grazing, their crops are responding to the increase in the soil biology and health, and their cattle are absolutely loving it! As a side note, the cows do still eat the silage/feed ration, but the covers are being used as a supplement/treat so to speak.


Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment! I’m opening the doors of our farm to share with you and enjoy engaging in discussion. Please be respectful in your comments. I reserve the right to remove posts that include name calling, slander, and vulgar language or contain links to websites that assault animal agriculture.

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