Mark, owner of Organic Pastures, answers questions about how he handles the veal dilemma, why he’s chosen to pasture-raise and grass-feed his dairy cows, and what consumers should look for when they choose their eggs.
Read part one of our two part interview with Mark.
Veal production is a byproduct of the dairy industry—what do you do with the male calves that are birthed on your farm?
I am repulsed by veal. I absolutely will not participate in it at all and nobody here believes in it. I just think that it is horrible to kill young babies.
We grow all of our cows to maturity, where they have a full life on green pastures. At maturity the steers, which are castrated bulls, are sent to our ground beef program which is an animal welfare approved slaughter process, which is humane.
In the program, all of our bull calves are raised to two-and-a-half years old, weighing around 1500 lbs., and those are sold as our own organic, grass-fed ground beef. I don’t know if you know this, but if you’ve seen the recent news on the pink slime—its grotesque. All of our meat comes directly from our calves, there’s nothing added whatsoever, and people love it because it’s real.
Can you talk a little bit about the reasoning behind putting calves into group pens instead of letting their mothers rear them?
We did an experiment about seven years ago—which was a flop—but a worthy experiment. We left the calves with the cows for a longer period of time and about 30% of the time the moms did a really good job of rearing their calves and would attend to them and nurse them. But 70% of the time the calves were abandoned—walked on or eaten by coyotes.
It was like dairy husbandry practices for the last several hundred years had bred the instinct out of the cows.
It’s different in the beef industry where the cows are left out up in the mountains, and have to fend for themselves. They made sure that the cows were pro calf survival. Dairy cows, however, are not that way. And so in order to save our calves we actually took them and put them in a protected area, made sure that they got their milk, were protected from coyotes, and that they were cared for. We only loose about 5 calves out of 500-600 calves that are born every year.
Why have you chosen to grass-feed your cows?
Number one—the pasture provides a clean and green environment which has the right kind of bacteria. That kind of bacteria is the kind that has the probiotic that you would find in yogurt—and that’s the beneficial bacteria you’ll find in the raw milk.
Cows in the wrong kinds of conditions—no sunshine, living in muddy conditions, fed lots of grain and treated with antibiotics—start having the wrong kind of bacteria in their manure and therefore you start seeing that in the milk.
That was the problem with Alta Dena—they didn’t have any pastures. They used antibiotics and thought that if you have a really clean udder, then you’ll have really clean milk. Well that’s the wrong kind of equation. In those wrong kinds of conditions they’ll always be getting salmonella in the milk. Whereas pastures provide the conditions for food safety.
Number two—pastures provide grass, which is obviously what changes the fat in the milk; high CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is the cancer fighting anti-oxidant fat, along with the omega-3 fatty acids, the cod-liver-oil-type fats which are very good for the immune system as well as heart disease.
So it’s nutritional and also provides an environment for safety.
We give them dried, organic alfalfa, which slows down the rumen and allows them to digest their food more, increasing the amount of nutrition they get from the food they eat. We also give them about 3-4 lbs of organic corn a day, which gives them an extra amount of energy because corn is very high in energy.
The cows that are used in dairy production these days, the unnaturally bred cows, will get skinny trying to produce enough milk. We don’t want that. We want a cow that is in a healthy condition to produce a moderate amount of milk—not a massive amount.
Just like a mother who is nursing her baby—if she stops eating well, or becomes dehydrated, she’ll stop producing milk for her baby so that she will survive. The same thing happens in cows.
Grain is an excellent source of energy, but we give it at such low levels that it doesn’t have much of an effect on the fats in the milk. And this is not a GMO or funky, weird grain that is fed at 30-40lbs. a day. We’re talking 3-5 lbs. a day—enough to keep her energized to produce 4-5 gallons of milk a day and still be healthy.
This is the rationale that is pretty much shared by organic dairy farmers across the United States. It’s a balance between the conventional model and just grass-fed, which is more for beef.
What is your ‘mobile milking barn’?
There were a bunch of lawsuits flying around in 1997-1998—a bunch of environmental activists were very concerned about the impact of dairy on ecosystems.
A big dairy had to be very efficient and it had to have big lagoons—25ft lakes that had to be excavated out of the ground and lined with plastic or clay—to put all the manure water in. A lot of the time these leach into the ground water, they’re destructive of aquifers, they stink to high heaven, and it’s just ugly. And I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
I wanted to have the un-dairy. I wanted to have the dairy that was focused on the cow, not on the producer’s infrastructure of some big mega-dairy. So I did some research and I realized that if I had cows on pasture and I didn’t have a confinement dairy operation then I would not be considered a dairy or subject to any of these regulations.
That was kind of a brilliant, early-on concept because now with all of these waste-water quality control acts—we’re not subject to any of those regulations because we don’t have a negative effect on the environment. We’re able to move around our 500 acres here and the cows don’t have to walk very far to get to the milk barn. We move the milk facility to the cow, along the road—not in the pasture—and it makes the cow more accommodated. She is more centrally focused.
The big conventional dairies don’t have a pasture—they just have a lot of cows crowded around a big d airy and they put all of the manure in a big hole. A stinky hole. A lagoon. We don’t have that. Any wastewater we have goes directly back on the pastures, and as we move away from those pastures to a new fresh pasture, our mobile milk barn follows them. So it’s a very light foot print for the dairy operation.
We’re a dairy and not a dairy because in the place where we have the dairy one day, the next it’s just sun and green and pastures and water. The cows are a half mile away and the milk barn is gone. This keeps us sustainable.
What qualifies an egg as organic?
The same factors that qualify organic dairy. The egg doesn’t have any growth hormones, no antibiotics. And the egg standards are pretty loose—you can get a lot of things qualifying as organic.
On our dairy we’re getting $9 a carton for our eggs and they blow-out immediately. And it has to do with the fact that rarely do you have an organic egg that is actually pasture-raised.
We have mobile chicken hutches that move around on pastures to follow the cows. They go through the cow manure, which reduces the fly larva issue. Any milk we get back from storage, which is not much—maybe about 50-80 gallons a week—that goes to feed the chickens and the chickens actually crave it, they go nuts for fermented raw milk.
It’s a natural, self-integrated system, where the chickens follow the cows. They’re out in the pasture and their eggs are beautiful and the chickens do really, really well. As a result we have a very bright orange egg yolk that people just go nuts for. They’re high in omega-3s, vitamin E, vitamin A.
I’ve read that conventional egg farmers use synthetic chemical cleaners to wash their eggs.
You’re exactly right. Any dirty egg we wash off with tepid water and a little egg scrubber. It’s all done by hand, and then they’re placed in a drying rack and then in the egg carton. We don’t use any sanitation, heating, irradiation, or chemicals—it’s just clean water, that’s it.
What should customers look for when they’re choosing their eggs?
Well it all depends on the customer because there are a range of customers for eggs. We think we attract the hardcore organic egg customer—obviously $9 an egg carton is not cheap.
They’re looking for the egg yolk color and they’re looking for the integrity of the farmer. They want to be able to look on Google Earth and see that what you’re telling is the truth—see a grass pasture where their eggs come from.
The truth is the truth—it isn’t some variation that we try to plant in somebody’s brain. It’s actually cows and chickens on pastures. And that is something we’re very proud of, that we have full transparency here and people can check out that what I am saying is actually true.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
When people look at raw milk, or a raw milk consumer, and say ‘You must be crazy to drink raw milk!’—that is partially true. There are two kinds of raw milk in America: one for the pasteurizer and one for the people. And remember pasteurization is just a national standard that the FDA regulates, and the standards are extremely loose.
And yes, if you were to drink that raw milk, it could be dangerous if it is not produced in such a way that food safety is enhanced. Well, raw milk for people is regulated at state level and it is very safe—based on the fact that the farmer is testing his food, testing his milk, and also has another set of conditions that are not required in a confinement dairy operation.
Pasteurized milk is listed as the number one most allergenic food in America and yet raw milk is actually antiallergenic, stabilizes mast cells, and actually combats asthma, eczema, and endocarditis.
This has been shown by a study done in Europe called the Gabriela Study where about 8,000 kids were studied over a period of years. The ones that drank raw milk didn’t have asthma. That was also confirmed in another study, called the Parsifal Study, back in 2006.
But the FDA denies all of that and states that the only treatment for asthma is a drug.
Our consumers are basically saying enough of vaccination; they want immunities through natural diversity of material in the gut. Enough of treatment by corticosteroids shots and inhalers for children with asthma. We want nutritional prevention. Enough of going to the doctor, going to the doctor, going to the doctor. We want probiotics instead of antibiotics.
So our people have rejected Western medicine when it comes to long term illness. Obviously nobody rejects Western medicine when it comes to good surgery for a broken arm, but the bottom line is when it comes to long term illness they have rejected it—and in lieu prefer prevention through nutrition.
So I would say that those who are really conscious look at raw milk as a breath of fresh air when it comes to prevention because it has good bacteria, enzymes, and all of the good fats that are missing in the American diet.