ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

What Makes a Cow Organic?

The following was written by an organic dairy farmer in Truxton,N.Y., who is also active in the Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Association. ChewsWise welcomes comments from other organic producers or industry participants with varying points of view.

By Kathie Arnold

What makes a cow organic?  The answer has certainly been controversial over the last several years, especially when it comes to grazing cows on pasture. However, I would submit that the National Organic Program regulation, which states that all ruminants must have access to pasture, has been clear right from the start to the vast majority of organic dairy farms and certifiers.

Only a small minority of operators and certifiers took advantage of the absence of a definitively worded regulation to minimize grazing; they also loosely interpreted, if not disregarded, the several citations to pasture requirements in the USDA regulations. This failure to come to the same understanding and application as everyone else seems to stem from a profit motive—to make more organic milk for the marketplace. For example, documents that have recently come to light show that the first operation of Aurora Organic Dairy, in Platteville, Colorado, apparently started out with about 70 acres of pasture for the 5,000 cows they were transitioning.  Their self-serving interpretation of the regulation - “all ruminants must have access to pasture” - was that the livestock just needed to have access to pasture at some point in their life.

Wherever organic livestock operations have failed to provide significant pasture for to their animals, there have been other organic dairies in those same regions—Idaho, Colorado, California—that do. Geography is no excuse for withholding pasture. Rather, the practice reflects the management and set-up of the farm. If the will is there, so is the way.

The National Organic Standards Board has made recommendations on pasture for years, clarifying what "access to pasture" meant. For example, the NOSB adopted a pasture recommendation in October of 2001 that stated in part: “Ruminant livestock must have access to graze pasture during the months of the year when pasture can provide edible forage, and the grazed feed must provide a significant portion of the total feed requirements.” Anyone who could not understand that language was either not trying, or was not going to understand unless compelled by regulation or the marketplace.

Although the NOSB in 2005 recommended a minimum of 120 days grazing, that figure alone was ripe for abuse. The cows can fill up at the feed bunks in the barn or feedlot, then be put out on pasture for an hour or so and the operation can meet 1 of those 120 days. That is why organic dairy farmers have pushed to require a minimum 30% dry matter intake from pasture for the growing season, which means the cows must get 30 percent of their nutritional needs from fresh grass. With only a number of required days on pasture, but no minimum pasture intake figure, there will still be no assurance of real pasture for all organic dairy animals. These proposals are currently being considered by the USDA.

Pasture places dairy animals in their natural environment, with their feed in its fresh, natural form; it also allows for behavior that is innate to the animals.  It not only improves the health of the animals, and helps produce topsoil for the earth, but it also benefits the consumer in terms of increased quantities of healthful essential fatty acids and vitamins in milk. Pasture most surely makes a cow organic.