Where Science Meets Muse

When Innovation Isn’t Really All That – Bringing Back Cow Diets from the Past

Posted by Plish on June 23, 2009

Cows Supping at the Flannery Farm (Michael Plishka, 2009)

Cows Supping at the Flannery Farm (Michael Plishka, 2009)


“What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

-Ecclesiastes 1:9

According to a recent press release  from Stonyfield Farm , they’ve pioneered a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cattle while improving the nutritional value of the milk.

By removing things like corn and soy from the cows’ diet and replacing it with a mixture of grasses, alfalfa, and flax, the cows burp substantially less methane and create better quality milk.  According to Stonyfield:

“(We have) been able to reduce the enteric emissions from the cows by as much as 18%, an average of 12%. If every US dairy were to adopt this approach, in less than one year , the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we could reduce would be the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road!”-Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield V.P. of Natural Resources and the director of the Stonyfield Greener Cow Project

This is an amazing feat and hats off to Stonyfield for taking the lead in doing this.

There’s only one problem…

It’s not really new or innovative.

Small family farms (like the Flannery Farm pictured above) have been feeding their cows diets without corn, soy and other non-cowlike additives, for years!  It’s only in the world of mega-farming that corn and soy (and wonderful things like rendered fat, fish and blood) and have found their way into the guts of cows whose stomachs evolved with a preference for grasses.

While on the one hand we could bemoan the fact that cows (and our atmosphere) have been subjected to assault from diets of corn and soy (and other things), the real lesson here is that sometimes we really don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or the diets of cows. 

When mega-farms started treating cows like machines instead of animals that have an evolutionary history, they lost sight of the bigger, sustainable picture.  Yes, they were able to up the output of milk but, in the long run, it was a costly undertaking and not a very elegant solution.  Ramping up production and creating higher “efficiencies”  is not necessarily indicative of technological advancement or innovation.

It could be indicative of poor design – on mega-farming’s part, not the cows’.


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