Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines holds a Master’s Degree in ruminant nutrition, a PhD in large animal veterinary science and another doctorate in Immunology, and for two days moved among us at the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP) Cooperative Regional Agronomics School. (CROPP is known for their Organic Valley® label).
Soil health is Albel-Caines passion. “I like to make the connection between the health of the soil, the quality of the grass, and how the cow gets healthy as she eats what is intended for her nature,” said Abel-Caines, who places equal value on human nutrition. “I cannot say enough,” she said, “about improving the health of people through good quality animal products, high nutrient vegetables, and it all comes back to the soil. Such meals play a key role in keeping health in the soil, in the forages, within the cow, and we will wind up with quality milk, produce and meat that will keep a healthy population.”
“Organic Valley milk is healthy milk,” she explains. “We know half day through, that the amounts of Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Omega 3 ratios are all off the charts.”
This past winter, Abel-Caines told Rootstock Radio’s Anne O’Connor that just any old grass is not good in a pasture. “Species that are important for dairy cows are legumes,” she said. “They are alfalfa and clover, for example, because they provide a little more protein to the diet of the dairy cow than the average grasses. Those grasses include fescue, orchard grass, and rye grass, species mostly present in the Midwest. If those are the only grasses present in the pasture,” she says, other nutrients might be needed.
The dairy cow, continued Abel-Caines, “has a certain level of nutrients that she expects to meet every day. She is milked twice a day, so she is expecting to have full meals with all the nutrients that she needs to produce the milk. At some point during her lactation, she produces a lot of milk. That is normal. That’s natural. Sometimes later in the lactation, she is producing less milk. At that point the farmer should not try to enrich her diet so she can get more milk because we work in tune with nature; we do not force the natural facility of the animals for the convenience of the farmer.”
Let’s get one small definition out of the way—the difference between organic grass-fed milk versus just grass-fed milk. “What the cow is eating 100 percent,” says Abel-Caines, “is organic grass that has been tended and cared for without the use of any chemicals, fertilizers, or anything that can change the actual composition of the grass. Grass fed that is non-organic makes you want to know what kind of grass it is. You want to go beyond just grass. You want to know how that grass was grown. It is well known that if the cow is transferring good things from the grass into the milk, she can also transfer bad things into the milk.”
Abel-Caines adds that the average life span of an organically raised dairy cow is far longer than that of a conventionally raised cow. This is due in large part the underlying goals of nutrition and health – sunshine, quality air, being in contact with nature, and exhibiting their normal behavior.
We found ourselves the next day at the Isaac Fisher Farm in Chester County where Abel-Caines was studying grasses again in a live setting. “A couple of minutes ago the cows were very close,” she said, mere feet from the cows, “and I was looking at what they were choosing to eat. Three of them were bypassing the alfalfa for about five minutes, and going instead to the sudan grass (sorghum). A couple of them have been a little farther away, eating the top of the alfalfa, the flowers and the first third part of the plant. They are actually selecting their ration right here.”
“This field has been in alfalfa for four years now,” said farm-owner Ike Fisher. “I feel I need a disk to knock back the alfalfa a little bit to give the sudan grass a chance. It’s sort of deceiving because when you disk, it looks like you’ve taken everything out, but give it about five days and it’s totally green again. I don’t think we lose any alfalfa yield by disking it; it jumps back amazingly fast. We put in a little bit of seed, as little bit of liquid manure, and disk it once. It is absolutely amazing what you get out of it. It’s a wonderful way to retire an alfalfa field. I kept track from the day I seeded it until we started harvesting, and we averaged about an inch per day. In 30 days we had 30 inches of growth.”