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Linehan, K.; Patangia, D.V.; Ross, R.P.; Stanton, C. Production of Organic Milk. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 16 April 2024).
Linehan K, Patangia DV, Ross RP, Stanton C. Production of Organic Milk. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 16, 2024.
Linehan, Kevin, Dhrati V. Patangia, Reynolds Paul Ross, Catherine Stanton. "Production of Organic Milk" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 16, 2024).
Linehan, K., Patangia, D.V., Ross, R.P., & Stanton, C. (2024, February 27). Production of Organic Milk. In Encyclopedia.
Linehan, Kevin, et al. "Production of Organic Milk." Encyclopedia. Web. 27 February, 2024.
Production of Organic Milk

Milk is one of the most valuable products in the food industry with most milk production throughout the world being carried out using conventional management, which includes intensive and traditional systems. The intensive use of fertilizers, antibiotics, pesticides and concerns regarding animal health and the environment have given increasing importance to organic dairy and dairy products. 

organic milk milk production systems

1. Introduction

Milk is among the most versatile and valuable foods in the food industry. In 2018, global milk production reached 843 billion liters, with an estimated value of USD 307 billion and is projected to grow by 22% by 2027 [1]. Approximately 80% of yearly milk production comes from cows, with the rest from other dairy animals like buffaloes, goats, camels, and sheep, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization [2]. Milk is also an essential component of the human diet, consumed by 80% of the world’s population [3]. Milk and dairy products are important sources of macro and micronutrients, including high-quality proteins, fats, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin D, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 [4][5]. The majority of global milk production is carried out using traditional and intensive systems, collectively referred to as the conventional milk production system [5]. The intensive use of mechanization, artificial fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics within the conventional milk production system has raised substantial concerns for the environment, animal welfare, and consumer health [6]. Misuse of these practices can lead to soil, water and air pollution, increased antibiotic resistance spread, loss of biodiversity, and elevated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [7]. Moreover, the conventional milk production system, which prioritizes high productivity and profitability, may compromise the nutritional quality of milk and dairy products [8]. The intensification and environmental repercussions of conventional agriculture, coupled with heightened consumer awareness of animal welfare and demand for safer and healthier food options, have prompted a re-evaluation of agricultural policy [9]. This shift has given rise to more environmentally and animal-friendly practices, such as organic agriculture [10][11].
The FAO of the United Nations (UN) broadly defines organic agriculture as “a system that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs” [12]. Organic agricultural production is an alternative farming system rooted in the ethos of sustainable production [13]. The objective is to prioritize the health and welfare of animals, ensuring clean and sanitary conditions for their shelter and nourishment, along with effective waste management [14]. Organic production promotes preventive health measures without the constant use of stimulants or antibiotics, allowing animal access to pastures and providing them with a diet consisting entirely of organic ingredients for optimal nutrition and wellbeing [15]. In contrast to conventional agricultural production, the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and antibiotics is banned or restricted in organic agricultural production [16][17]. According to the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) in 2021, organic agriculture was practiced in 191 countries, on more than 76 million hectares of agricultural land by at least 3.7 million farmers, and the size of the organic market reached 125 billion euros [18].
The intake of organic milk, whether in its natural state or as part of dairy products such as pasteurized whole milk, yogurt, cheese, curd, cream cheese and butter continues to grow worldwide [19]. Today, milk and dairy are the most in-demand organic products after organic fruits and vegetables in the organic food market [20]. Organic milk and dairy products, once available only in a few specialized shops, are now widely available to meet increasing consumer demand [21]. In recent years, research on organic milk and dairy products has also increased [22]. Several studies have reported compositional differences between organic and conventional milk [23][24]. For instance, organic milk has consistently been reported to contain significantly higher levels of whey proteins, total polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), n-3 PUFA and vitamin E (α-tocopherol) [25][26]. Organic milk production has also been reported to influence the microbial content of milk [27]. Compositional differences have been linked to conditions associated with organic production such as breed, environment, health status, and feeding regime [25]. The health benefits of milk are associated with the various bioactives mentioned and can be direct, such as contributing to nutrient uptake, bone health and bone density development, and immunomodulatory potential with effects reported starting from as early as childhood [28], while other benefits can be indirect through the gut microbiota by exerting probiotic potential. Organic dairy production is free from antibiotics and chemicals, thus helping in the reduction in antibiotic resistance gene generation and spread. Further, the low ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, and the higher PUFA content are associated with health benefits, though some results are debated [29][30].
Despite the known benefits of organic farming practices, the debate over the advantages of organic milk and dairy products compared to their conventional counterparts persists [31]. Organic farming presents challenges for farmers involving changes in animal husbandry, land, and crop management [21]. Furthermore, the switch is cost intensive, resulting in comparatively low yields and higher estimated product prices [32]. In addition, adhering to strict, mandatory, and country-specific regulations for organic farming and food production, makes the transition a demanding process [33]. Consumers also often express skepticism due to the high prices of organic dairy products and the lack of definitive studies showcasing their benefits [34]. However, as sustainability concerns continue to gain global attention, the organic dairy market is expected to grow [21].

2. An Introduction to Organic Milk Production

Organic Milk Production Regulations

Organic milk production is permissible exclusively on certified farms, depending on individual countries’ regulations or organizational certifications [35]. Despite sharing fundamental principles, the specifics of organic milk production regulations exhibit notable variations globally, primarily regarding the rules governing pasture access, nutrition, use of antibiotics, and conventional to organic status conversion period. Subsequently, organic milk products produced in one country may not retain their organic status when exported to another country with distinct legal requirements [21]. Therefore, the diversity in organic regulations may contribute to the variability in organic milk composition between countries [36].

3. Milk Production Systems

Traditional and intensive milk production systems are collectively referred to as the conventional milk production system. The conventional system dominates milk production practices worldwide, primarily focusing on high productivity [21]. The intensive system is principally performed in developed countries, while milk production in developing countries is carried out in an extensive (traditional) manner [37][38]. The organic milk production sector is experiencing rapid growth, surpassing the expansion rate of other dairy sectors worldwide [21][39]

3.1. Conventional Systems

3.1.1. Traditional System

The traditional system relies on pasture as a low-cost primary feed source [40]. Farming practices are primarily determined by the climate and available resources in a given region. Therefore, the traditional system is primarily employed in temperate climates, such as in Ireland and New Zealand, which leads to a seasonal milk supply. Cows are kept outdoors, grazing on pasture during the warmer months of the year. In the winter months, cows are dried off and housed indoors and are fed a diet of primarily pasture-based silage and hay, which is cut and ensiled from surplus pasture earlier in the year. Their feed is typically administered ad libitum (without specialized equipment and calculation of feed rations). When pasture-based feeds alone fail to meet energy requirements of the animal, concentrate supplements are also provided. The ration is not consistent in this feeding system, making it challenging to achieve a balanced diet and can potentially hinder high milk yields [41]. The traditional system offers cows a more natural environment than the intensive system, allowing the expression of normal behaviors [42]. Pasture-based feeding systems have also been demonstrated to beneficially affect the nutritional quality of milk and dairy products [43]. Milk and dairy products obtained from pasture-based diets have larger proportions of beneficial nutrients for human consumption such as PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and n-3 fatty acids than cows fed concentrate diets [44][45][46][47][48]. While the intensive milk production system is supplanting the traditional system, the latter is expected to dominate for the foreseeable future in developing countries [37][38].

3.1.2. Intensive System

The intensive system is based on the use of a total mixed ration (TMR) diet administered using a feed truck. The intensive system is primarily performed in countries with climates which make pasture difficult to grow, including the United States, China, and large areas of Europe [49][50]. TMR is a mixture of roughage (grass/maize/corn silage) as well as concentrate feeds supplemented with vitamins and minerals [45]. TMR feeding offers greater opportunities to enhance intake rates and meet nutritional needs more effectively [51]. Furthermore, this system protects animals from extreme weather conditions [52]. The number of dairy cow farms employing the intensive milk production system has grown significantly over the last 20 years [49]. Animal welfare concerns continue to grow regarding indoor TMR feeding systems. These include increased incidences of lameness [53], mastitis [54], mortality [55] and aggressive behavior due to reduced space [42]. Indoor TMR feeding systems also restrict the animals’ ability to express their natural foraging behavior [42]. The development of the partial mixed ration (PMR) feeding system may alleviate some of these concerns. The PMR system combines indoor TMR feeding with the outdoor grazing of fresh pasture by alternating the feeding approaches. PMR feeding has been shown to increase levels of CLA, α-linolenic acid (ALA), vaccenic acid and PUFA significantly compared to TMR feeding [56], in addition to non-significant differences in milk yield and protein content [56].

3.2. Organic System

Organic milk production is based on maximizing milk production in an environmentally sustainable way, while prioritizing the health and wellbeing of animals. Distinctive variances exist between organic and conventional milk production systems, each presenting its own set of advantages and drawbacks. No single production system can be deemed ideal, as milk production is an ongoing process. The merits of either system hinge on a comprehensive evaluation encompassing longitudinal sustainability, environmental impact, economic factors, and social considerations. There are several fundamental differences between organic and conventional milk production systems [21][23]. In contrast to the conventional systems, the organic system prioritizes the utilization of native cattle breeds [57]. Crops must be fertilized organically, and the use of synthetic and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides is prohibited, which has been shown to have beneficial effects on soil composition and functionality compared to conventional systems [58][59]. Animals must be provided with organic feed containing ingredients sourced from organic agricultural production, while the inclusion of natural non-agricultural substances is also permitted. For example, vitamins and minerals are sourced from natural substances such as sprouted grains, cod liver oil, and brewer’s yeast. In general, a minimum of 60% of the feed must be sourced from the corresponding farm. Additionally, a minimum of 60% of the dry matter in the feed ration must consist of roughage, green fodder, dried fodder, or silage. During the summer season, cows are provided unrestricted access to pasture vegetation, predominantly comprising low grasses (50%), tall grasses (30%), and legumes (10–20%) [23].
On organic farms, the duration of pasture feeding frequently extends beyond 180 days, whereas on traditional farms, it typically does not exceed 140 days [36]. Organic pastures stand out for their rich sward biodiversity, encompassing various species of grasses, legumes, and herbs. This diversity directly contributes to the nutritional value and quality of fodder and milk produced [43][59]. During autumn and winter, cattle are required to be provided with roughage, comprising silage made from combinations of cereals and legumes or haylage. The inclusion of beets or potatoes in the cattle’s diet is reserved for the winter season [60]. Similar to traditional farming methods, grazing access has been shown to benefit the welfare and behavior of organic cows compared to conventional systems [61][62]. However, organic farms still show a need for improvement, especially regarding animal health [62]. The main problems faced by organic and conventional systems are analogous, with mastitis and lameness identified as particular areas for improvement [63].The use of GMOs, growth stimulants, and synthetic amino acids is also prohibited in organic agriculture [33], while antibiotics may only be utilized in emergencies for veterinary indication. The rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) attributed to the excessive use of antibiotics in food-producing animals has become a significant concern [64], especially concerning the risk of developing newly resistant bacteria that could be transmitted from animals to humans [65]. Encouragingly, organic farming has been demonstrated to markedly decrease the occurrence of AMR in dairy cattle compared to conventional farming, globally [66]. Finally, pasture-based systems have been demonstrated to emit less GHG emissions, such as methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2), than conventional farms [67][68].


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