Why Grass-Fed Dairy Is Better For You—And How To Avoid The Fake Stuff

Here’s how to know if your milk and yogurt are legit—and why it matters.

February 15, 2017
cow eating grass
Alexas_Fotos/12313 images/Pixabay

Most milk and beef sold in America today comes from cows that have been fed corn. It cheaply fattens the animals up, but because cows’ multi-compartmented stomachs can’t properly digest corn, it also makes them more susceptible to E. coli, a pathogenic bacteria that can spread to humans. The solution? Grass.

Not only are grass-fed cows healthier, but their meat and milk are more nutritious than their cornfed counterparts. Grass-fed meat and dairy contain gobs more beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent dementia as well as heart disease. They’re also high in conjugated lineoleic acid (CLA), a healthy omega-6 that’s been shown to lessen symptoms of inflammatory disorders such as allergies and asthma.  In well-managed grass-fed operations—where cows are regularly moved to fresh pasture—there’s an environmental boon, too. Their manure replenishes the soil, improving the quality of the forage growth, which in turn reduces erosion and water pollution.

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As word of these benefits has gotten out, demand for grass-fed products has skyrocketed. That’s led to some shady advertising. All cattle are grass-fed until they get to the feedlot, and any producer can put the words “grass-fed” on their product. (The USDA’s woefully understaffed Food Safety and Inspection Service theoretically regulates grass-fed beef claims, but doesn’t have the resources to audit ranches, so it’s all on the honor system.) Luckily, there are a few reliable and strict grass-fed certifications out there.

American Grassfed
Photograph courtesy of American Grassfed Association
American Grassfed Association (meat and dairy)

The American Grassfed Association label requires that animals be raised on grass and forage only; they cannot be confined to feedlots; and they can never be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts. All animals must also be born and raised in the United States. 

Food Alliance certification
Photograph courtesy of Food Alliance
Food Alliance, Certified Grassfed

To be certified grassfed by Food Alliance, all livestock must meet or exceed level 3 on Food Alliance’s Whole Farm general sustainability standards, which cover integrated pest management; soil, water, and wildlife conservation; and safe and fair working conditions. All animals must be on range or pasture for their entire lives; they must not be confined to pens or feedlots; they cannot be fed any grain, grain byproducts, or animal protein products; they can never be administered any antibiotics or hormones. 

A Greener World certification
Photograph courtesy of A Greener World
Certified Grassfed by A Greener World (meat and dairy)

To be Certified Grassfed by A Greener World herds must first be certified Animal Welfare Approved, (AWA standards forbid the use of growth hormones or routine antibiotics and also require an annual review of slaughter facilities). Animals must be raised outdoors on pasture for their entire lives and cannot be fed grain, grain byproducts, or any other form of feed concentrate.   

PCO Certification
Photograph courtesy of Pennsylvania Certified Organic
Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) 100% Grassfed (meat and dairy)

For Pennsylvania Certified Organic certification, farms must first be certified organic, which means antibiotics and growth hormones are verboten. Livestock must be fed only organic pasture or forage—no grain or grain byproducts.

organic dairy brands
Photograph courtesy of Organic Valley, Maple Hill Creamery
Brands To Look For

In addition to looking for those certifications, here are two 100% grass-fed lines that you can trust. 

Organic Valley

This farmer-owned cooperative, which launched its "Grassmilk" line in 2011, now has 121 Grassmilk dairies. Organic Valley products include milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter. 

Maple Hill Creamery

A 100% grass-fed dairy, based in upstate New York, Maple Hill Creamery makes yogurts, kefir, and raw-milk cheeses distributed to all 50 states. Certified grassfed by Pennsylvania Certified Organic.