USDA: Organic dairies must get cows out on pasture 120 days


WASHINGTON — If you want to follow national guidelines for selling organic milk, your dairy animals must graze pasture during the grazing season — and that must be at least 120 days per year.

The USDA announced details Feb. 12 of the final regulation regarding access to pasture for organic livestock operations.

This rule amends the National Organic Program regulations to clarify the use of pasture in raising organic ruminants.

Organic = pasture

The final rule provides certainty to consumers that organic livestock production is a pasture-based system in which animals are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season.

The majority of organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers are already grazing animals and maintaining pastures that meet the requirements of this rule. These standards contain clear requirements that will provide greater assurance that all producers are being held to the same standards, according to the USDA.

“The organic farmers that we represent are celebrating this rule because it will help to protect the integrity of the organic label,” said Lexie Stoia Pierce, certification program manager for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

” For the public, this rule helps ensure that consumers get what they pay for.”

Pondering finishing practices

USDA received a substantial number of comments on provisions of the rule affecting finish feeding practices of slaughter livestock, and has extended the comment period for this provision for 60 days.

Finish feeding is commonly used by organic farmers and ranchers to improve the grade of beef and involves feeding livestock grain.

“It is difficult to decouple standards for milking cows from standards for finish feeding,” said Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “Since finish feeding gets swept up into this dairy rulemaking, we are taking an extra step and inviting public comment on the finish feeding requirements.”

Five years in works

This final rule is the culmination of a process that was initiated in 2005 when the National Organic Standards Board recommended that ruminants obtain a minimum 30 percent dry matter intake for at least 120 days.

The main components of the rule include:

— Animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year;

— Animals must obtain a minimum of 30 percent dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season;

— Producers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil and water quality; and,

— Livestock are exempt from the 30 percent dry matter intake requirements during the finish feeding period, not to exceed 120 days. Livestock must have access to pasture during the finishing phase.

The final rule becomes effective 120 days after publication, June 17, 2010.

Operations which are already certified organic will have one year to implement the provisions.

Copies of the final rule and additional information are on display on line at


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  1. It is about time this issue was addressed by the USDA perhaps now consumers will be confident that there is a vast difference in how organic cows are maintained!

  2. It can easily be enforce just by testing the milk. It is a known fact that cows that graze fresh grass give higher quality (not quantity) milk with little to no change of having any ecoli or other pathogens.

  3. Anonymous….

    It actually cannot be enforced by any testing methods just like all organic production. There is not one bit of difference between organic and conventional milk. Somatic cell count is usually the standard for milk quality and there is no difference in the two production methods. Some studies have shown and increase in CLA in cows fed an increased amount of pasture but their are confounding factors involved such as season, parity, and breed. Most organic standards are done to appease consumers and this is another one that is essentially passed to try to inhibit large scale organic milk production.

    Organic producers can use certain drugs and chemicals in their cows, some recently approved. My biggest complaint about organic production is from an animal welfare perspective. I have seen producers decline treatment of cows that were sick because they could not use products (example, mastitis cow or pneumonia cow that could be treated with approved antibiotics). Instead these cows were allowed to suffer and in some cases die. There is also no way to know if an organic producer uses antibiotics and follows meat and milk withholds that conventional producers follow. Consumers are unaware of this.

    The method of production between organic and conventional milk is different. The end product is the same.


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