New Rule Impacts Organic Milk Production

February 22, 2010
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the passage of new regulations designed to clarify rules surrounding access to pasture for organic dairy cows.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the passage of new regulations designed to clarify rules surrounding access to pasture for organic dairy cows.

"Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The final rule ... will give consumers confidence that organic milk and cheese come from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products."

Under the revised regulations, organically raised livestock must graze pasture during the entire grazing season, which, although it varies by region, must be at least 120 days per year. In addition, USDA said, animals must get a minimum of 30 percent of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from grazing pasture during the grazing season. Producers also must develop a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements of grazing animals.

The push for new regulations came about primarily because of concerns related to a few large Western dairies that put cows out to pasture only when the cows weren't giving milk. The practice violated the spirit of an old rule that said only that organically raised livestock had to have "access" to pasture.

At the center of the controversy is Aurora, Colo.-based private label supplier Aurora Organic Dairy, which nearly had its organic certification revoked in 2007 after a USDA investigation uncovered more than a dozen "willful" violations at the company's five mega farms, home to about 15,000 cows. To retain its certification, the company agreed to make several significant changes, including giving ruminants greater access to pasture.

"We do not anticipate any problems with the requirements of the new access to pasture final rule nor any operational disruptions related to implementation," Sally Keefe, Aurora's vice president for government affairs, told PL Buyer. “We look forward to working with our certifiers to assure our continued compliance with the National Organic Program."

Ron Schnur, vice president of the dairy supply chain at Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon Dairy, another large organic milk producer frequently targeted by organic industry activists, said in a statement: "We are very pleased that this new rule clarification will help to ensure that consumers can count on and trust the integrity of organic dairy products. As we have always done since our earliest days as an organic pioneer, we will continue to work with our almost 500 family farmers to ensure that all Horizon milk is produced in a way that meets or exceeds the high standards as set by the National Organic Program."

Although companies such as Horizon source organic milk from literally hundreds of farms, The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group and frequent critic of large-scale factory farms, estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the nation's organic milk supply comes from a handful of "giant CAFOs" (concentrated animal feeding operations), a reality that seems to go against many organic consumers' interest in supporting small family farms.

"This is an ideal time to consider [alternative] sourcing options for private label," noted Mark Kastel, Cornucopia senior policy analyst. Although the new regulations, combined with the National Organic Program’s (NOP) commitment to strict enforcement, "will go a long way toward helping assure consumers that private label organic dairy products meet the same production standards as the name brands ... [moving away from factory farm suppliers] represents a great opportunity to earn even more points with consumers in a sophisticated and competitive market," he said.

According to USDA, the new rule will become effective 120 days after publication on June 17, 2010. Operations that are already certified organic will have one year to implement the new provisions. Operations that obtain organic certification after the effective date will be expected to demonstrate full compliance.

The new regulations also include a provision on finish feeding for organically raised livestock headed for slaughter. (Finish feeding is commonly used by organic farmers and ranchers to improve the grade of beef and involves feeding livestock grain). But because of the large number of comments USDA received on finish feeding, the agency extended the comment period for that provision an additional 60 days.

For more information or to read the new regulations in their entirety, visit - Denise Leathers

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