Gilford farmer Julie Neto lives on a century farm, which has been producing milk since 1931.
She isn’t surprised to learn a recent Toronto Star study showed there’s not much difference between her cows’ milk and that collected from organic farms in Canada.
A tracked organic milk production and found it was no healthier than cheaper conventional milk.
“It’s the same with everything they buy that says organic,” Neto said. “It’s kind of an inside joke among farmers: people go organic because they have no money for spray or fertilizer. That’s what they say.”
As a conventional farmer, Neto must comply with regulations from the Dairy Farmers of Ontario — the quasi-governmental organization that controls the organic and regular milk supply — and she and husband Armenio work hard to produce good quality milk.
“To say organic is better, I don’t believe it is,” Neto said.
Many organic milk buyers believe they’re getting a purer, more natural product without additives like antibiotics or hormones. Federal law, however, prohibits antibiotics and growth hormones in all milk.
Tests done on Ontario milk by the Star found no difference in the levels of metals or healthy fats. Neither contained detectable traces of pesticides.
“The milks are the same — they are identical with respect to the testing and quality standards. There’s no added hormones. No antibiotics,” Dairy Farmers of Ontario spokesperson Graham Lloyd said.
In Ontario, every truckload of milk is tested for the presence of inhibitors, including pesticides and antibiotics.
If a cow is sick and antibiotics are needed to treat it, the milk is discarded and not included in the daily haul for at least 14 days after treatment.
For organic farmers, that milk is removed for at least 30 days after treatment, or twice the minimum required for conventional use, whichever is longer, Ottawa-based Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) director Tia Loftsgard said.
Loftsgard critiqued the Toronto Star study by saying it wasn’t a robust scientific study. She said customers who buy organic milk are concerned about their health, animal welfare and environmental benefits.
“Choosing organic milk means consumers are supporting the reduction of toxic synthetic pesticide use on pastures and cropland among many other benefits,” she said in a statement. “Choosing organic dairy products is not only about the final product, nor the farm it was made on. It is about supporting a system that is trying to do better across the supply chain.”
In Canada, farmers are also not allowed to use growth hormones.
“If we use that, our license is gone,” Neto said. “If they find any drugs in the milk, we are in major trouble, and major financial trouble, too. If you’ve contaminated a load you’re in deep (trouble).”
Neto has about 40 milking cows on her farm, but also has young heifers and rotates the ones that are milked.
She has a tie-stall operation, where the farmer moves from cow to cow to do the milking.
They are usually two-and-a-half years old when they start. A fact milk drinkers might not realize is that farmers like Neto don’t milk the cows year-round.
“You can’t milk a cow from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31,” she said. “We have heifers who are bred and you can’t milk them if they’re going to have a calf. Say she gets bred Aug. 1. She would be due around May 7. You can’t milk that cow up to May 7. For me, I try to allow a 60-day dry period (before calving) to let her have a rest and build her body back up to go through the calving process.”
Innisfil dairy farmer Barbara Kell-Rose is following in her father’s footsteps and has mostly Holsteins on her farm. She said milk consumers should know they are buying safe products at the grocery store.
“I think some of the companies market things and try to add a bit of fear to promote their own product. But as farmers, we all care about our cows and are concerned it remains a safe product for everybody,” she said. “We all drink our milk and we were pleased to see the results from this study.”
While there are only two Simcoe County farms that process their own milk — in Loretto and in Creemore — milk drinkers can support other county dairy farmers by drinking Canadian milk.
“The minute you go to the store and buy four litres of milk, you are buying local. Look for that little blue cow that says it’s 100 per cent Canadian,” Kell-Rose said. “You are buying something safe, that’s tested. But it’s not just the farmers you’re supporting. There are feed suppliers and many other small businesses involved in the farm chain.”
— With files from Torstar News Service