What Grass-fed milk really means (in Canada)

If you’re like me, when you go to the grocery and health food stores, you see a bunch of labels on milk products.  None of them are obvious as to what they really mean.

What does ‘Organic’ milk mean anyway?  I looked on the back of the box, but it doesn’t say anything about what they feed the cows.  If they don’t want to say, I guess they’re just feeding the cows organic grains and trying to make a profit off health-conscious customers?

Why does the organic milk sometimes have a ‘Grass-fed’ sticker on it, but not all the time?  Does that mean that all the rest of the time they are only fed grains?

This one clearly says ‘Grass-fed’ all year round – this must be the best one!


We have gathered intel from individuals working within the organic and conventional grass-fed dairy industries, and have assembled the information into an easy to understand table:

 Organic  Grass-Fed Conventional
What do the cows actually eat?Bottom line / TLDR:
At least 60% grass (synthetic pesticides and fertilizer-free), and up to 40% organic, GMO-free grains.

As per the Canadian Organic Standards under the direction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, all organic cows producing organic milk must be grazing on fresh grass during the growing season.
The pastures that organic cows go on must be free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
In the warm season the cows are feeding on pasture for most of the day – from approx. May 1st to mid-October.  During this time, producers may place a “grass fed” seal on packaging.  This may not be done on certain products due to logistical reasons, for example it is not on cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or sour cream products, however the products produced during this time follow these guidelines.
The grass % is approximately 75-100% during the warm months.  Cows graze for up to 22 hours a day, coming in only to be milked.
In the cold weather months when the cows are off pasture, they spend their time in and around the barn area.  The time they spend outside truly depends on the weather.  The farmers grow and cut their own grass (pasture) / hay during summer/fall and store for winter months, so the cows are still eating a high percentage of forage during this time of year (minimum 60%).  Hay is harvested from organically grown pastures during growing season.
Farmers also grow a variety of organic grains, including oats, barley, peas, corn, and soybeans, to promote digestion and overall health of the animal.  Any grains that the cows are supplemented with come from 100% certified organic, GMO-free sources and often come directly from the same farm.
The farmers can use discretion as to which grains they feed the cows.  One producer stated that oats, barley, peas, corn, and soybeans are used.  Another stated that only oats, barley, and peas are used.
With this in mind, the following now comes down to interpretation of what “grass” actually is. One producer’s comments:
“We understand “grass-fed” to be a cow eating rooted green chlorophyll rich grass with her teeth.  As you are aware this simply is not possible year round in our cooler Canadian climate.  As farmers we define green grass as above and dried grass (hay), in our case which is organic and harvested from our pastures, as separate entities as both grass and hay are of different composition, structure and nutritional value.
We are taking the position that by adding the words grass-fed on packaging can create confusion and may be interpreted or misleading based on the above definition and explanation.  We feel that this phrasing is not an exact, clear, transparent or fair representation of the meaning of “grass-fed” year round.  We do not agree to call preserved stored “hay” as grass.  We believe that such initiatives are more of a marketing position designed to appeal to the public and trade with less consideration toward our Canadian winters and the directive by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Canadian Organic Standards.”
Bottom line / TLDR:
At least 75% grass, and up to 25% conventional grains (grass or grains are not organic or GMO-free certified)

The cows eat at least 75% grass year-round. From May until October the cows are out to pasture, and then during the colder months the cows are in and around the barn area. During the winter months, cows are fed dried grass – it must consist of at least 75% of their diet. Throughout the year, farmers do have the flexibility to feed up to 25% grain to their cows. Therefore, the cows are fed grass year-round, but during the summer it is grass from the pasture, and during the winter it is grass that is dried.
The pastures and supplemental grains do not have to be organic or GMO-free.
 How is the milk processed?Milk is not pooled at a common processing plant.  There is complete traceability and accountability.All conventional milk in the province of Ontario, no matter how diligent the farmer or dairy may be, is affected by GMO’s, either through the feed, the seeds, or the transportation, as milk is pooled on route to the processing plant.

Points to consider

The reason given for feeding grains:

“Organic grains are part of the diet to promote digestion and overall health of the animal.”

Although if you think about a wild cow, living free, would they have grains as part of their diet?  Or are the poor wild cows suffering from digestive issues due to their 100% foraging diet?

The truth is probably closer to this:

“We feed grains to the cows because it’s difficult for the farmers to harvest enough hay during the warmer months.  We have to give them grains, otherwise they’d have nothing to eat!”

Or maybe the grains help with the promotion or taste of the milk.  I don’t know, and they don’t say.  (Feel free to drop a comment if you have an answer.)

But they can’t say that, can they?  Because that would be admitting the truth, and because the truth comes with the cost of being vulnerable to those who exploit it for personal gain, it is difficult to justify.

Like everything else that any company does – protecting themselves and their interests comes first. 

If they put everything on the label, it would make them more vulnerable to those looking to take advantage of that extra information.  After all, all it takes is one slip in wording to bring out a customer complaint, lawsuit, or other action that would make them regret ever writing anything on the packaging.

This is one of the big issues that we face these days with food packaging in general.  They provide too much information, and they risk being vulnerable.  They would rather conceal information rather than take that risk.

Who does that hurt?  Everybody. 

The average health-conscious person now goes into the grocery store, and, probably buys the one that appears to be the healthiest, when sometimes it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

That’s it for now, folks. Feel free to leave a comment below if you can suggest reliable suppliers of grass-fed milk in your area. Thanks for reading!



Grass-Fed Conventional: