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The difference between pasture-raised and confinement dairy farming and the products they create.

Milk splashing in a large container

Farming forms the basis of our natural food system today, and it’s something that we often overlook when thinking about the food that we eat. Growing healthy food is vital to human health and the farmers that put in the hours of hard work to do it are absolute heroes in our opinion.  In any type of animal farming system, care for and respect the animals that they look after is paramount and farmers raising those animals spend every day ensuring that they are comfortable and have a healthy and pleasant life.

In dairying, there are two main types of farming systems – Pasture-raised, and Confinement (or Intensive) farming. The use of one or the other is generally dictated by tradition, the climate that the dairy operation is in, and the requirements of the population that it needs to feed. All cow’s milk is highly nutritious and a great choice as part of a healthy diet, however grass-fed or pasture-raised dairy products do have additional nutritional benefits over and above dairy from confinement animals, and there is also some interesting benefits from an environmental health point of view as well.  

Pasture-based vs confinement (intensive) dairy farming:

Pasture-based, free-range or “grass-fed” farming commonly refers to the traditional “back to your roots” style of farming. It’s the one that’s been around for centuries, where cows graze on open paddocks, munching on fresh grass enjoying the sunshine. They are rotated around multiple farm paddocks where the grass is eaten by the cows to generate energy and milk, fertilized by their manure, then left to recover when the cows move onto a different paddock. Pasture-based farming is most often seen in temperate climates where the cows can be outdoors all year. It is typically the cheapest form of farming as growing grass isn’t particularly expensive, but it is typically less efficient in terms of milk production when compared to confinement farming. Pasture-based farming is the most common form of farming in countries like New Zealand and Ireland.

On the other hand, confinement dairy farms provide the majority of milk in the United States. Confinement farms typically keep their cows in large barns, where they are mostly fed grains, corn and soy. The cows might also eat some dried hay, silage or grass, but they are typically not let out to graze in a paddock. Weather plays a large part in the necessity of this type of farming system, particularly in the North and Midwest states of the USA where the temperature is frigid for months at a time, so it would be far too dangerous for cows to be out in the fields. Efficiency also plays a part as the volume of milk produced by each cow is easier to control when their feed intake is also carefully controlled.

Some states/countries/ climates will utilize a hybrid method where the cows are able to graze on pasture in the milder months, and retreat to barns in the extreme hot or cold months.

What difference does the farming style make to the milk and dairy products that the cows produce?

All milk is a wonderful, natural source of many valuable nutrients – Calcium, Protein, Vitamin A, riboflavin (B2), and vitamin B12. However, Grass-fed milk contains more CLA (Conjugated Linoleic acid) and Beta Carotene.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid is a fatty acid that helps to regulate the immune system, and maintain cardiovascular health. One study found the CLA content in milk from grass-fed cows to be typically around 1.8% of the fat content in milk, while the CLA content in milk from grain-fed cows was found to be typically around 0.7% of the fat content in milk. (1)

Remember that story your parents told you as a kid, about how eating carrots makes you see at night? Well that’s not exactly true, but what is correct is that the beta carotene, which gives carrots their orange color, is good for your eyes (as well as supporting immunity and bone density!).…..New Zealand butter is known for its natural golden color which is a reflection of that beta-carotene content in New Zealand milk.

One study found that butter made from cows that were fed on a ryegrass/clover pasture diet contained 3.99 ± 0.46 mg/kg trans-beta-carotene content, while butter made from cows that were fed a mixed ration diet contained 2.27 ± 0.13 mg/kg trans-beta-carotene content. (2)

Healthy for you, and healthy for the planet too:

Because New Zealand is a temperate climate, it is perfect for growing grass…and lots of it! As such, dairy cows in New Zealand are almost exclusively raised free-roaming on pasture – exactly the way mother-nature intended. This not only creates healthy dairy for us to eat, but has many other benefits for the planet, such as carbon sequestration via grass cover, insect biodiversity and improved soil biology to name a few.

One other very important component that has only recently been studied deeply is that New Zealand pasture based systems, combined with good manufacturing practices, mean their dairy products have among the world’s lowest carbon footprint. 

The carbon footprint on-farm for Fonterra milk production, New Zealand’s largest dairy co-operative, is 0.78kg CO2-e/kg FPCM (excluding land-use change), 0.91kg CO2-e/kg FPCM including land-use change. (3)

That is approximately one-third of the global average of 2.5kg CO2-e/kg FPCM. (4)

So, as you can see, pasture raised dairy is not only delicious and nutritious but it’s also good for the planet! That’s why our high quality Pounamu Protein products rely on grass-fed, pasture-raised dairy proteins from New Zealand.

Studies Referenced:

(1): Kay JK, Roche JR, Kolver ES, Thomson NA, Baumgard LH. (2005) A comparison between feeding systems(pasture and TMR) and the effect of vitamin E supplementation on plasmaand milk fatty acid profiles in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Research 72:322-332.(

2): MacGibbon AKH and Taylor MW. (2006). Composition and Structure of Bovine Milk Lipids in Advanced Dairy Chemistry Volume 2, Lipids, 3rd Ed, (P.F. Fox and P.L.H. McSweeney, eds.)Springer, New York, pp 1-43.• O’Callaghan TF, Hennessy D, McAuliffe S, Kilcawley KN, O’Donovan M, Dillon P, Ross RP, Stanton C. (2016). Effect of pasture versus indoor feeding systems on raw milk compositionand quality over an entire lactation. J. Dairy Sci. 99:9424-9440.

(3) Fonterra Sustainability Report 2019 https://view.publitas.com/fonterra/sustainability-report-2019/page/1(

4): FAO, 2018. “Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector”, Report by FAO and GDP, 2018. http://www.fao.org/3/CA2929EN/ca2929en.pdf