Splendor in the Grass

Published on: 16:15PM Feb 23, 2010

After several years of often bitter debate about what it means to be an organic dairy farm, the USDA earlier this month settled the issue, by moving to finalize a new rule saying that organic cows have to be pastured at least 120 days per year, and that 30% of their feed intake must come from pasture-grown forage.

This decision, which will be final in June, is the latest salvo in the more than ten year-long battle over defining organic dairy production.  Up till now, organic dairy products mostly have been defined by what they’re not:  they’re not from farms that use synthetic pesticides (though natural pesticides are OK); they’re not from farms that use antibiotics (although all milk is screened for antibiotics to ensure they don’t enter the dairy supply); and they aren’t treated with growth hormones (although organic milk, just like regular milk, contains the same trace levels of hormones).

The matter of pasture access was really a footnote.  The National Organic Program regulations said organic cows had to have pasture access, but it was never codified as to what that really meant.  Now we know.

This pasture access battle was really another proxy in the long fight over what type of farms should be allowed to produce certified organic milk.  The thinking behind these new stipulations is that it will keep the largest dairies from fudging on the pasture access issue.  If you’ve got a 1,000+ cow dairy – and there are some in that range that are currently organic – it will take a great deal of management skill to ensure those cows get enough forage during their four months on the range.  Also, the 120 days is a minimum threshold, and if you live in a more temperate part of the world…say, California, the expectation is that the cows will be out the majority of the time, which creates its own headaches in the cool, rainy months where there is a lot of mud to go along with the grass.

Here are a couple thoughts on this decision: 

First, even four months on pasture means eight months in a barn or corral.  So the notion that organic farms have continual pasture access is not what this law achieves.  Same applies to the 30% dry matter intake requirement – that puts the majority of feed in a different bunker.

Second, USDA’s research shows that most farms have pretty decent pasture access already.  The 2007 NAHMS survey found that 33% of the cows, and nearly 60% of the farms, put their cows on pasture during at least part of the year (see page 71 for the chart).  So the practice among conventional farms is not too far different than what will be required of organic ones.

Third, as I wrote about this issue in 2008, this is not about making a more nutritious or safer product, or one that has any functional superiorities.  It’s all about marketing, and whose farm is truer to what is a totally arbitrary notion about how to raise cows.  It’s 0% scientific, 40% economics, and 60% politics.

Last, the USDA also recently released a national survey of organic farming.  It found that about 200,000 dairy cows in 2008  produced about 2.75 billion pounds of milk – which is 1.4% of the U.S. dairy supply.  And that was a good year for organic dairy demand – 2009 was not.

These new regulations are not likely to make it easier to manage organic cows or produce organic milk, meaning that the category will remain an exclusive, and expensive, niche product into the future.  Is ensuring that access to the organic club remains unworkable for most a good thing?