Resolving a longstanding dispute, the USDA published a proposed pasture regulation that sets new grazing requirements for organic livestock and bans confined feedlots from the industry.
Dairy farmers had been pushing for this rule for at least three years, though variations had been proposed since at least 2000. According to the USDA's document on the regulation, published in the Federal Register, more than 85,000 people sent in letters in support of a stricter pasture requirement (pdf).
Advocates say the USDA actually got the new pasture regulation right. In a press release from the National Organic Coalition, Kathie Arnold, a New York State organic dairy farmer, said: “This draft rule provides specific language needed for enforcement of one of the central tenets of organically produced livestock—that organic livestock spend a considerable part of their lives in their natural pasture habitat and receive a significant portion of their food from fresh, green, growing pasture.”
Previously, the USDA required organic livestock to have "access to pasture," a term that was so loosely interpreted that several prominent organic CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) arose in the industry, housing thousands of cows with little or no grazing on pasture. The pasture loophole undermined the purpose and intent of organic livestock agriculture.
Now, "Dry lots and feedlots are prohibited," the proposed regulation says.
Animals must graze throughout the growing season, which in some regions may be for the entire year. The bare minimum nationally would be 120 days. In the document, the USDA explains:
In the United States, growing seasons range from 121 days to 365 days, depending on location. By using the growing season as the minimum time period for grazing, the regulations ensure that ruminants raised in areas with longer grazing periods are not denied the opportunity to graze for more than the minimum of 120 days.
In addition 30% of a cow's nutritional needs must be met by pasture, which means they must be eating fresh grass.
If this rule is adopted, as expected, after the 60 day comment period, it will undo the disturbing rise of organic CAFOs and require that organic livestock graze on pasture, as consumers and farmers overwhelmingly expect.
In short, the regulation looks like a big win for organic integrity.
- Samuel Fromartz