Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, DVM is Organic Valley’s ruminant nutritionist. That simple title conceals quite the background for Dr. Silvia, who has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition. As Organic Valley’s ruminant nutritionist, she travels around the country helping Organic Valley farmers improve the nutrients available in their pastures. Because healthy cows produce healthy milk.
Today Dr. Silvia joins Rootstock Radio to discuss cow’s nutrition and why it’s so important to us humans. In her interview she explains what a ruminant is, what makes them so unique, and why grass is a crucial part of their diet. “The amazing thing is that [ruminants] can convert a natural resource, like fiber, into something that humans can utilize. No other animals can do it.”
Interview with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines
March 14, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and today I’m here with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, who is an Organic Valley ruminant nutritionist. That simple title conceals quite the background for Dr. Silvia. She has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition, and another doctorate in…?
SILVIA ABEL-CAINES: Actually in immunology.
AO: Immunology. Dr. Silvia travels around the country helping Organic Valley farmers improve the nutrients available in their pastures, because healthy cows produce the best milk. Welcome, Dr. Silvia.
SAC: Thank you, Anne. An honor to be here.
AO: First of all, let’s get some boring stuff out of the way. What is a ruminant? And tell us about stomachs.
SAC: (laughing) Very good! Well, a ruminant is one of the species of animals that have, as a unique structure in their digestive system, four stomachs. In fact, it’s just one stomach divided in four cavities. And unlike pigs and chickens and other animals, they are able to ferment the food that they consume, regurgitate it, chew it back, and then extract all the nutrients from there.
AO: That sounds kind of gross, but it is nevertheless true, right?
SAC: Yes, it is.
AO: So you deal with ruminant nutrition. And how is that different from, say, dealing with a pig?
SAC: Actually very different. The fact that we are working with animals that are able to extract nutrients from feed sources that chickens or pigs are not able to—and we call them monogastrics.
AO: They only have just one stomach?
SAC: Only one stomach.
AO: Mm, poor creatures.
SAC: And they are so unique because of the fact that we have a natural resource that is able to produce wholesome products, like meat and milk, coming out of fiber that is not digestible by any other species. So the amazing thing is that they can convert a natural resource like fiber into something that humans can utilize. And it’s an amazing process. No other animals can do it. And they make the whole earth a sustainable place for living.
AO: So the most obvious ruminant that we know of are cows. What other ruminants are there?
SAC: Many. We have llamas and alpacas, goats, sheep, giraffe, and we have so many species all around the world. They can go as small as mice and as big as a giraffe. We have some that are in unique places where no other animals can actually use the grass, and altitudes where ruminants are the only one actually providing meat and milk for groups of people. So they are all over the world, and specifically serving humankind. And I’m all about that. I like food-producing animals the most.
AO: So this is the magic that you’re talking about. You know, no matter what climate we’re in, if there’s grass, we can have these ruminant animals helping to feed human beings.
SAC: That’s exactly right.
AO: Because they can take this and magically turn it into food for us.
SAC: Exactly. And that’s the beauty of balancing an environment where we have livestock and people, and the ability to connect all of them. Because the grass will be growing, and if it wouldn’t be for the presence of ruminants, there would not be available the meat and milk for them. So that’s the beauty. We have other animals that can serve different purposes—eggs from poultry. But that unique conversion of grass into wholesome produce is only available through ruminants.
AO: So can cows eat any grass? Any grass fine? Anything—just find some grass and eat it and that’s going to work out? Or do we have to pay attention to the kind of grass that our cows are eating?
SAC: We do. And depending on the purpose that you have for your animals… If you have a recreational tourist activity in your place where you have a cow just munching around and don’t expect much of it, that will be fine. So she can find whatever, and she will give you some milk and maybe growing at a pace that might not have any pressure.
But I always like to make the distinction between doing that and doing that for the purpose of production. Because when we are engaging in a dairy enterprise, we are not talking of the same set of quality grass for the cow. A dairy cow was bred initially for high milk production, but that is initially with the intention of having high-quality grass for her. Otherwise the ability of that animal, as amazing as the process is, will be compromised or will be less effective. So yes, she can do it, but if you have a purpose for that animal, and that is serving the budget of the family, then you should pay attention to the quality of the thing that she is eating.
AO: Okay, so let’s get this clear: If you’re talking about Daisy, it’s your family cow, she’s in the backyard, she’s eating some grass that’s back there, it’s not the best grass that there ever was, but she’s going to do fine, and she’s going to give you some milk, and you’re going to be okay for your family. Many farmers who do dairy production want to have the highest quality, so that takes a different kind of effort.
SAC: That changes the management of the whole place. That changes the management of the paddock where the cow is eating, because that intentionally drives the farmer to make changes in the way he is managing his farm. And the importance of that is the end-point. The quality of the milk that that cow is producing has direct connection with the quality of the grasses and forage and pasture that she’s consuming. And that, even though some people like to say that it comes like magic, it actually involves a conscious plan, a very well organized plan, sometimes with long-term planning to achieve what he wants. So he needs to work on details if he wants to see good results.
AO: I think that pastures are a bit of a mystery to the average person who is not in farming. And so you know, you might have this idea that a farmer has a field, a pasture, and you send your cows out there, and isn’t that great? And what you’re saying is hey, look, a lot of our farmers have to take a scientific and artistic approach here. They have to measure the land, they have to look at the soil, they have to have it examined and figure out where it’s short in nutrients and what it needs. There’s entire plans dedicated to figuring out which kinds of grasses and what the combinations of grasses. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about what do you have to pay attention to?
SAC: That’s right, the farmer needs to pay attention to what’s growing in his farm. And the first thing is to take a close look, bending and taking a close look at the species growing. Because if the farm has not been cultivated with the help of Extension people, with the help of neighbors who have more experience, they wouldn’t be able to actually produce the quality of grasses that the cow needs. So species that are important for dairy cows are, for instance, legumes. They are the alfalfa and clover that provide a little bit more protein to the diet of the cow than the average grasses. And grasses, we mean fescue and orchard grass and timothy, rye grass. These are all species that are mostly present in the Midwest. And if they are the only ones that are present in the grass, we probably will think that the cow might be in need of some additional nutrients, like protein.
So the farmer needs to pay attention: what’s showing up in his farm every year? Is there any need to actually improve the amount of species? Because we believe, in organic, sustainable dairy production, that the diversity of the grasses and legumes growing in the paddock has a direct correlation with the health of the cow. And that is because she has a certain level of nutrient that she is looking for to meet every day. She is milked twice a day, so she’s expecting to have full meals with all the nutrients that she needs in order to produce the milk. When a farmer is looking into a steady income from milk production, he likes to plan ahead of time: how can I provide a steady flow of nutrients for my own farm that will result in a steady supply of milk?
Of course, that also changes with the physiology of the cow, because sometime during her lactation she produces a lot of milk, and that’s normal, that’s natural. And sometimes later in the lactation she is producing less milk. That is normal, and the farmer should not try to enrich the diet so she can get more milk, because we work in tune with nature. We don’t force the natural physiology of the animals for the convenience of the farmer.
AO: So what I hear you saying is a well-tended farm produces a healthier cow, which is going to produce healthier milk. So if I’m a mom, which I am, and I’m looking for the best milk that I can buy for my family, the best dairy products, I should be looking for milk that’s produced with cows out on pasture.
SAC: That’s right. And, by the way, I am a mom too. I have three kids, and I am also looking for that quality milk for my family. And the fact that I am in this direct connection with the source made me realize that yes, this is what people are looking for. This is what we value, because we want the best for our family. And the farmer that realizes that will provide for that cow the best, because that connection of the quality of the milk really comes from what she’s finding every day. In many organic, sustainable, grazing, pasture-based farms, there is high importance on the nutrition.
AO: You’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, Organic Valley’s ruminant nutritionist. We’re talking about cow nutrition, pasture, grass-fed milk and other dairy products, and why all these things matter to the people who consume dairy products.
So was there ever a time in your life that you had a change in your way of looking at nutrition and health?
SAD: Yes, definitely. So I came to this country with the intention of specializing in ruminant nutrition. That’s what I like and that’s what I was passionate about after finishing med school. And I came to this country to learn how to produce milk more efficiently. That was the term that was the encouragement to get into dairy nutrition.
The fact is that I was trained conventionally at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and I specialized with people that their target was feeding cows in a way that they can maximize milk production. But in the back of my mind, I knew that there was a cost involved in that. But of course, that was what is being taught in our universities, and you assimilate that. And for several years I worked in the industry doing just that with a company—
AO: Pushing, pushing, pushing for more production.
SAC: Exactly—farmers asking me what we need to change in their ration so we could make more milk. And as a dairy nutritionist I’d work around whatever feed was available locally and put together a little formula, and boom, we have a consistent feed every day, mix every day for the cow, deliver in front of her, and she will consume that—with, of course, additives that sometimes we know are questionable in the way they affect their physiology.
It wasn’t until I had my first child, and then after I had twins—I had a boy and a girl two years after my first child, so things got really busy and I decided to step out of my career and focus on my family and my kids. And then I found myself reaching to the dairy case and looking for organic milk, and I found myself growing organic vegetables in my backyard, and realized that during this time—I stayed at home ten years—and during that time I had a complete rethinking of how I would like to see approach the nutrition of the cows. And I thought, if I go back to my career, I want to serve those farmers that I’m willing to pay the extra amount of money to get their produce, and I want to make sure that whatever I learn is available so they are profitable and they continue making the milk that I want for my family.
AO: I wonder, you know, it reminds me, when I stepped out of my career to stay home with my children, I remember voicing some concern to a woman that I worked with about how I would fall behind, and I didn’t really know what would happen. And she said, “You know what’s going to happen is you’re going to go out and you’re going to have a lot of different experiences, and they’re going to shape you, and you’re going to come back stronger and smarter than ever before.” And I certainly think that that is—
SAC: That’s exactly right, yes. And just the time to take information and then put it into context, in the right context, because you need to see, you know, where is all this milk that you once produced going to?
AO: And coming from.
SAC: And you make a lot of changes as you assume reality as something that you hold very dear to you.
AO: So your PhD at the University of Nebraska, right, was focused on the fatty acid profile of milk. Can you explain to people who don’t have any idea about what “the fatty acid profile of milk” means and why it matters to us who consume dairy products?
SAC: Sure. I was working with Dr. Rick Grant, who is now well known to have impact in the dairy nutrition area. And we worked on trying to see if there could be a way to change the fat profile—and by that I mean there is a perceived notion that the fat of the milk, contained in the milk, is not good, is not good for humans. And so the consumers have been asking for what we call more healthy fats, and now the term “omega 3” is more well known. And when you analyze the type of fat that is in the milk, it has a higher level of saturation. That means that it is harder or solid and tends to increase cholesterol in blood. Several years ago, many people started to study that, and so we were looking at how we can change what the cow eats in order for her to have more of the healthy fats.
And at that point we were using co-products [byproducts] of the soybean industry, things that are left over after the soybean oil is extracted. They were being fed to the cows, and see what would that affect the milk of the cow? And it was interesting because we were feeding something that changed positively the fats of the milk to a more healthy balance. But we’re doing is feeding the cow a byproduct of the industry. So we could see the direct connection of nutrition and milk, and how you can actually influence that. You just need to find what is the right feed that you need to give to the cow in order for that milk to change.
AO: What did you find?
SAC: The number one thing that will change the cow for the better in terms of milk is grass that has the perfect profile of fatty acids, especially because the cow has the ability to take that grass, and the rumen microbes that live inside the rumen are the ones that change that fatty acid. They are present in the grass; the cow chews the grass; and then the rumen microbes—bacteria, fungi, protozoa—they all transform that into more healthy fatty acid.
AO: So what you’re saying is a cow that is on pasture, eating an organic, grass-based diet, is going to produce more omega 3s. It’s going to be more in balance, have lower levels of, or a better balance anyway, of omega 6s, which are what we have way too much of in our standard diets at this point, and more omega 3s, which we all need more of at this point.
SAC: That’s right, yes. And the cow can transfer that into the milk, and the more grass she consumes, the more healthy fats end up in the milk.
AO: I want to ask you something about organic, particularly, because people are very excited about “grass-fed” as a category, a label. What’s the difference between organic grass-fed milk and grass-fed milk?
SAC: That’s a big difference, because what the cow is eating a hundred percent is grass that has been tended and cared without the use of any chemical fertilizers or anything that can change the actual composition of the grass.
AO: So you can have grass-fed milk that still uses pesticides?
SAC: That’s right.
AO: If it’s not organic. “Grass-fed” doesn’t mean that they’re not using pesticides.
SAC: That’s correct. So grass-fed that is not organic is saying yes, the cow is on pasture and is eating only grass. But you want to know what kind of grass, so you want to go beyond just grass. You want to know how the grass was grown, because it is well known that if the cow is transferring the good things from the grass into the milk, also she can transfer the bad things into the milk. So you want to see that beyond grass, you want to see a healthy grass, because again that is ending in the milk as the cow consumes that and transforms that into herself.
AO: And so the same goes for, you know, that question could be applied: grass-fed milk doesn’t mean that that cow wasn’t given antibiotics; grass-fed milk doesn’t mean that that cow wasn’t fed GMOs, right? Only if you have organic grass-fed milk can you be assured that those things, that there are no antibiotics, that there are no pesticides, that there are no GMOs. That “organic” label is what makes the difference there.
SAC: That’s correct, yes. It makes a difference, because that’s the step closer to the healthy product that we want. In fact, the original diet of the cow is grass, which we started to make changes into that. But even if we go back to only grass and make no changes in the way that grass is grown, we are still not having the best cow we want.
AO: What else should people know about cows and pasture and their connection? I mean, if I’m living in a city and I don’t get out to farms, but I like to have my cheese and my sour cream, what else is important for me to understand about how it’s raised?
SAC: Well, that’s a good question. So I mentioned that I have kids, and I bring my kids along with me during the summer to visit the farms and the meetings we have with the farmers. And they are a good reflection of the way kids in urban cities are thinking. We live in the Chicago area, so they are growing up mostly surrounded by people that really don’t know the whole connection between the food and the food source. And they remind me of the things that people should be aware, what is going on in the countryside.
The most important about dairy cows is the fact that they are consuming a wholesome product. It is mostly water, and then the components inside the milk are so important, because it’s not just protein and fat and sugars and the case lactose. It is more than that. The levels of vitamins present in there; the fact that we can have a product that, if you drink, you can have a certain level of the essential nutrients like the omega 3s, just coming from a glass of milk; the fact that we know that a healthy cow is able to produce milk with the level of proteins that a kid needs and is able to get it exactly from two servings. So changes in the diet of people in urban areas have a direct connection with the quality of the product that is grown and produced in the countryside.
Also the care of the animal. Grazing animals last longer. The life span of a dairy cow is three or four times the life span of a cow that is in conventional production.
AO: Because they’re outside and they’re moving and they’re being fed differently?
SAC: That’s right.
AO: So three or four times longer?
SAC: Three or four times longer. And it’s basically because they are following just the principle goals of nutrition and health: sunshine, quality air, in contact with nature, and exhibiting their normal behavior.
AO: So you could be talking about cows or you could be talking about humans.
SAC: That’s right. And it’s about the same thing for humans. So if we are exposed to quality air, quality food, get outside, and get the sunshine, we have the best starting point for our health. The fact that we have been removed from the basic of health and nutrition tells us that this is the direct consequence of all the diseases we are seeing today.
AO: A huge thanks to our guest today, Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines. It’s been fascinating to talk to you today and hear about how cows influence our food system and all the different aspects of farming.
SAC: Thank you. It was a pleasure for me to communicate what I like and how fascinating it is to work with dairy cows and consumers.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.