The Organic Pasture Rule. Is it Good or Bad?

The National Organic Program (NOP) has released new rules for livestock that mandate access to pasture for ruminant animals. These rules require that a percentage of the necessary dry matter intake per day come from pasture.  The minimum is 30% dry matter per head per day for at least 120 days over the grazing season. This is the short answer to a complicated rule, and it is definitely presenting organic livestock and dairy producers a changed production model. The upshot of the matter from my viewpoint is as follows:


1. The large “organic” (meaning “fake”) operations will have to change (and already are). One of the major issues with organic dairy was the presence of essentially confinement operations in the West that did not allow animals access to pasture, or the pasture that was available was not adequate for dairy. Essentially the animals were fed their necessary ration for milk production in confinement, and then possibly allowed out for a short time (but didn’t eat anything). These large operations supplied major chains like Wal-Mart and others. Consumers were becoming more and more aware of this, and realizing what they thought “organic” meant was not what they were buying. This was extremely bad for the organic label.

2. Ruminant livestock in general will have to have more pasture in their diets. This absolutely is a good thing. Cows, sheep and goats are geared for grazing. The resulting meat and milk from these animals will be healthier. I know there will be those that disagree, but speaking as a producer and a processor I can tell the difference in a big way through taste and the health of my family.  One doesn’t have to look far to find study after study supporting the nutritional value and quality of organic foods vs non-organic. The information that refutes this is heavily influenced by large economic interests that profit off of confinement feeding with a lot of grain.

3.  The increase in opportunity. One opportunity that I can see is a custom grazing operation that would take replacement heifers from an organic dairy for the grazing season. This would have several positive benefits: (1) the dairy would realize a decrease  in labor in regards to not having to take care of those animals, (2) a decrease in feed requirement in terms of pasture,  and (3) an increase in pasture for the money-making milking herd OR additional land on the home farm for grain production. In addition, another local farm would have a good business helping the dairy adhere to the organic pasture rule and make some additional money. The more economic activity I see happening, the better it is for the local economy. I can attest to this: I graze a local dairyman’s replacements for the summer. It works very well, as I get paid per head/per day, the dairyman brings a grain mix as a supplement and minerals, I get animal impact on my pastures, and the dairyman can increase his milking herd and actually make more money in the long run.


1. The increased paperwork. One thing that grates on organic producers is the paperwork involved. It seems backwards that an environmentally better agricultural production model has to “prove” itself, when probably the reverse should be true.  I know for certain that the increased paperwork has resulted in organic producers making the decision to give up certification.  In the dairy world the increased paperwork has put off those that are on the fence of deciding to transition. Also, on the certification end of things that increased paperwork and scrutiny has resulted in increases in costs and fees, which increase the costs of certification — which could lead to an increase of cost to the end consumer. Someone has to pay for all of that.

2. The hit to the small guy. I say this with tongue in cheek, because the small guy needs to play by the rules as well. Already there is a move afoot to modify the Pasture Rule, only because of the unintended consequences to the small producer. HOWEVER, I think that generally speaking everyone needs to move towards increasing the amount of pasture ruminant animals have under their care for their enterprise to be certified organic.

This is just a short analysis of a very impactful ruling. One thing for sure that I believe will be the short-term result, and that will be a shortage of organic milk and organic meat. I havent’ even addressed the issue of pasture or access to pasture for organic chickens. That’s another story in itself.

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