Saturday, April 28, 2007

Got Grass?

On my way home from work, I pass not just one, but two California “Happy Cows” billboards. Given that I live in the Midwest, and I can find a cow standing in pasture less than 20 minutes from my city in any direction, I’m not all too clear on why I should be seeing ads about the mental state of cows in California. I’m also not certain why someone spent $17 million in 2001 alone to tell me how happy the cows are.

I mean, many of the cows here look happy to me. Especially the ones that make my milk. They pretty much live on a pasture most of the time. They get milked only a couple times a day, no hormones or antibiotics. They eat grass, lie in the sun and basically do all the things happy cows should be doing. I even have a photo of the actual cows that make my milk posted here. So, see for yourself. Do they look happy to you?

So, what’s the deal? And are California cows all happy? Is the cheese really better?

The deal is this: the ads were done by the California Milk Advisory Board to try and compete with Wisconsin for the cheese market. When you consider the budget for just one year plus superbowl ad and national TV and outdoor advertising, all for over 10 years, well, that’s a lot of cheese. Literally and figuratively. It’s also a lot of cows and a lot of milk.

Last time I checked, there was no statewide mandate in California that dairy cows could not be kept in large-scale dairy farms in order to produce all that milk. Farms where many of the cows live indoors, in a small pen, over a hard floor and are fed grain, not grass, along with hormones and antibiotics. Others live in muddy, crowded enclosures with no access to grass or pasture.

Giving birth is a job requirement for dairy cattle, but the calves are taken from the mothers in about 24 hours in most cases. As for these mothers, many of them wear out after a fraction of a dairy cow’s normal life span, and are then led (limping and lame because they never got to move around) to auction. Shortly after, the dairy cow is slipped between a sesame seed bun and handed to you through a drive-thru window.

It’s not so happy, is it?

When the heir to the Baskin-Robbins business considered joining PETA in suing over these ads, well, maybe the rest of us should think twice about the truth. Besides, the cows can’t exactly speak for themselves or hire a lawyer, can they? If they can, I want to see that ad.

So, is the cheese really better? Well, not that cheese, or at least not all of it. Good cheese comes from good milk. Good, healthy milk comes from a healthy diet. For a cow, that diet is grass. And, maybe, just maybe, being allowed to produce a normal amount of milk without hormones and living in healthy conditions has some affect as well. I'd like to think so.

Grassfed dairy products have been shown in studies to be one of the richest known sources of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA (Dhiman, Annand, 1999). CLA is a type of good fat. Cows that are solely fed on fresh pasture alone produce milk with as much as five times more CLA than dairy products from animals fed conventional diets.

CLA is thought to be one of the best dietary defenses against cancer, including lowering the risk of breast cancer. (Scimeca, et al. 1994) (Aro, Mannisto, et al. 2000). I've just begun researching the information on the benefits of grassfed dairy, meats, poultry and eggs, but as I find more, I will post it. In the meantime, this site is a good reference.

While I can’t attest to the taste of cheese from happy cows, (my dairy has not started cheese production yet), I can say that the milk is incredible. Complex, rich and has a lovely soft grassiness to it that I had never tasted in milk before. Possibly because I never had real milk before. The taste of the milk even changes with the season. You won’t believe the difference in taste.

I can’t wait to try the cheese. Or make some ice cream. Or drink some more milk. It’s good to have happy cows. Really happy cows.


Toby said...

I have a question...

Do you get raw milk from your farm, or is it pasteurized? I have a really hard time finding pasteurized milk from grass fed cows around here.


The Expatriate Chef said...

Pasteurized. We have two dairies here that sell to grocery stores. It's a pretty new thing for us, and we've been enjoying it.

Toby said...

That's awesome.

I live in the Midwest as well, but I'm having a really hard time finding the kinds of foods I want my family to eat. Our co-op has a produce distributor in Indiana, but they ship in much of their foods from California, so what's the point? We can get local chicken and eggs, but the dairy is raw. I can't find a CSA that isn't an hour's drive away, and my city's farmer's market is a sad state, though the neighboring city has a beautiful one. I've also found a local grocer who lives on a farm, so most of her seasonal produce is local.

The Expatriate Chef said...

It is tough. I am hoping if the farm bill measures pass that will improve the bill for family farms and eating local, that there will be big changes for us all. It is ironic that those in rural areas have a hard time eating local! with limited access to a farmers market. Maybe if we all keep demanding local products, it will help the situation.