What makes milk organic?

I recently was at a neighborhood gathering where we were discussing backyard gardening and organics. My neighbors and I love to try our hand at growing vegetables but often have wars with the local bunnies eating our delicious veggies. The conversation turned towards what does organic, local and natural mean. I’ve lived on a farm, sold seed to farmers and now work for an agriculture chemical and seed company, so I could define most of those terms. It wasn’t until one of my neighbors said she buys organic whole milk for her kids that I could no longer commit on the pros and cons. She admitted she doesn’t know why organic milk is better but wants to start her kids off right.

Having an 18 month old myself that I buy store brand whole milk for, I decided to do the research to see what the difference is. OrganicMilk

For all mothers with young kids, here are the facts on organic and non-organic whole milk.

What’s the same?

Nutritionally, the milk is the same, and all milk, organic or non-organic, is antibiotic-free since every tank coming from the farm is tested. If you’re a mom giving your child non-organic milk, you can be relieved that it’s just as healthy for your child as organic milk is. The difference is how the cows are housed, fed and treated when sick.

What’s different?

How cows are housed

Cows raised on an organic farm are on a pasture for 120 days and have limitations on how long they can be in a covered structure, like a barn.

Cows raised on a non-organic farm do not have these rules, but are often found in well-ventilated free stall barns with fresh soft bedding. This provides them shade on a hot summer day and warmth on a bitterly cold and windy winter day. All farming operations, organic and non-organic, try keeping the cows as comfortable and happy as possible since this will lead to more milk production.

What cows are fed

Organic cows are fed with 100 percent organic feed, and during grazing periods, must get 30 percent of nutritional needs from pasture grass. The other 70 percent is often organic corn and forages that follow strict guidelines regarding the fertilization and chemicals used for pest and weed control.

Non-organic cows are fed a diet to meet the nutritional needs of a lactating cow using modern day USDA-approved farming practices. Neither practice has been found to be healthier for the cow or human consumption of milk.

What happens to sick cows

Treating sick cows is another difference in organic versus non-organic milk. Cows, like humans, can contract several different types of sicknesses. There are various drugs that organic cows can be treated with, which can be found on the USDA organic website. I’ll jump to the most talked about treatment. Antibiotics.

Organic farms cannot sell milk from a cow that has been treated with antibiotics, but at the same time, they are prohibited to withhold treatment when a cow is sick. If an organic cow gets sick and is treated with antibiotics, she will be sold to a non-organic farm and her milk discarded until the antibiotic has passed through her system. At this time, the non-organic farmer can start selling her milk again.

All milk is antibiotic-free and tested for antibiotics before it is processed.


The other big difference is cost to the consumer. Looking at store brand prices for milk around Indianapolis, a regular ½ gallon of whole milk is $1.49 and organic is $3.59. My 18-month son averages about 1 gallon a week. For my household, a 140 percent increase in cost would be an extra $4.20 per week or $218.40 a year.

So the next time I’m faced with the question of organic milk or non-organic milk I will have the facts that back my decision to give my kids non organic milk.


Personal experience

LeAnn Bruns grew up on a diversified farm of corn, soybeans, market cattle, and hogs in Eastern Nebraska. She studied AgBusiness at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has an MBA from the University of Findlay. She started her career selling Mycogen seed to farmers in Northwest Ohio and recently has worked in marketing and supply chain for Dow AgroSciences. She is a 33 year old wife and mother of 2 active boys living in the suburbs of Indianapolis. Her interests revolve around food and the great outdoors but usually classified as cooking, gardening, hiking, and biking.