Happy cows: the case for sustainable milk

by | Sep 22, 2022 | Opinion

Glen Herud, founder of the Happy Cow Milk company regularly prompted by well-meaning people to give up the cows altogether and move into plant-based milk production. Herud says the reason they give is that plant-based milk are the most sustainable milk. Here’s Herud’s usual response.


Cropping can really damage our soils. Most cropping is intensive cropping that is degrading our soils, especially if it is done continuously, year after year. Every time soil is cultivated the soil structure is broken down some more. Soils with poor structure hold less water so it needs more rain or irrigation.

When soil is cultivated some of the precious carbon held within the soil is released into the atmosphere. This is important because every additional 1% of carbon within a soil, enables the soil to hold an extra 250,000 litres of water per hectare.

Every time we use a tractor to cultivate the soil, the engine is releasing new carbon into the atmosphere. When a farmer plants a new crop, they almost always spray it with herbicides and pesticides.

When the crop is harvested, the nutrients that the crop has removed from the soil needs to be replaced with fertiliser. The higher the yield the more fertiliser is required. If a crop is grown to produce “plant-based” milk. It’s safe to say, intensive cropping was involved.

If a crop was grown to feed dairy cows to produce cows’ milk, then it’s also safe to say that intensive cropping was involved. So which is better?


Video from Happy Cow’s previous crowdfunding round in 2021


A lot of people see the issue as plant-based vs animal agriculture. But a better way to look at things is how intensive is the agricultural system. The real issue is intensive agriculture vs un-intensive agriculture.

The crop type or the animal involved is not the determining factor. Any form of agriculture can be high or low intensity. For example, a pasture-based dairy farmer can cultivate a paddock in year one and plant grass species for the cows to graze.

That paddock won’t get cultivated again until year 6 or 7.

If the cows only eat grass that is grown on the farm, then the system is low intensity and the cow’s production will be limited to around 3,500 litres per cow per year. But if the farmer decided to grow corn and soy crops and feed those crops to the cows. The cows will produce 8,000 litres per cow. That’s a much more intensive system involving a lot of cropping, fertiliser and sprays.

But both systems produce cows’ milk.

A similar example for cropping farmers could be made too.

One farmer could grow oats and soybeans for two years and then plant grass to graze sheep on for another two years before cropping the paddock again. That would be a low-intensity system with a low output. Another farmer could simply crop their land every year resulting in a much higher output.

They both produce oats but they have very different environmental impacts. The truth is most plant-based milk are produced by high-yielding, intensive cropping systems that use a lot of inputs, fuel and sprays.

They are usually imported from overseas and come in a non-recyclable tetra-pak. It’s also true that most dairy milk is produced in the same way. But I get a little bit sad inside when someone says that their plant-based milk of choice is more sustainable than the low-intensity dairy system that we promote at Happy Cow Milk.

As an example, our farmer Chris is super low intensity, he uses no nitrogen fertiliser and no sprays. He barely starts his tractor.

If I was a plant-based milk producer, I would write exactly the same thing as I have today. Because I would be a low-intensity cropping farmer and I’d want people to understand the difference.

It’s not the cow or the crop. It’s the intensity of the cow and the crop that matters.

Crowdfunded Milk

Happy Cow Milk Co partners with great farmers and to enable them to start selling their milk locally. This means the public can support great farmers by buying their milk. And great farmers can help their customers understand more about sustainable production.

In the coming months, more outlets will be opening in Hamilton and Auckland. Happy Cow Milk launch into Christchurch in January next year. Their third crowdfunding campaign will be kicking off in a few weeks.

To get early access and ensure you don’t miss out, sign up to the crowdfunding list here.


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