There may be two more shopping days until Christmas but if you're hoping to comment on the USDA Access to Pasture Rule for organic dairies, you'd better hustle: Comments must be received by tomorrow, Dec. 23. The 60-day comment period offered an opportunity for public input regarding a proposed rule clarifying pasture and grazing standards for organic livestock.
Access to pasture for organic cows has been a requirement of the USDA organic regulation since its inception. Farmers, processors and consumers asked the USDA to clarify the rule, however, because the existing regulation has been too vague for National Organic Program overseers to consistently enforce. Accusations have buzzed like flies in a feedlot calling large organic dairies "factory farms." The draft rule cites a 2006 Consumers Union survey of 1,485 U.S. adults that found that more than two thirds of all consumers believe that the national organic standards require that animals graze outdoors while, in fact, the standards did not enforceably specify the quality or quantity of outdoor grazing required for an organic label.
According to the USDA, highlights of the proposed rule include specification such as:
- A definition of "growing season," and the requirement that all animals over the age of six months must be on pasture throughout the growing season.
- Animals must receive 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture.
- A definition of "temporary confinement," and clarification of periods of temporary confinement.
The majority of the organic community supports the proposed rule, according to Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. The changes will go toward "achieving a quantifiable, level playing field across the country, ensuring that each organic producer gets a fair shot," he says.
The 30 percent dry matter requirement is the most critical component of the rule, says Maltby: "It effectively ensures that cows spend a minimum of time on pasture… and that the pasture provides quantifiable nutrition. It ensures that the pastures are true pastures and not feed lots. This will help maintain the integrity consumers expect from the organic label."
Aurora Organic Dairy, the nation's largest organic dairy, supports the revision of the pasture requirements. However, "due to differences in climate and soil conditions across the country (and world), we believe the information regarding how feed value from pasture is measured should be contained in the producer's organic systems plan, which is approved by USDA-accredited organic certifiers. We do not believe that there should be prescriptive and unscientific metrics in a national regulation," says Sonja Tuitele, vice president of communications for the Boulder, Colo.-based company, which manages more than 4,000 acres of organic pasture surrounding their five farms.
The Straus Family Creamery, based in Marshall, Calif., has run a campaign opposing the new regulation. "Unfortunately, the proposed rules offer a 'one-size fits all' solution to an industry that is regionally diverse in climate, water usage and herd-size, and would make it virtually impossible for the Northern California small organic family farms to comply," the company says on its website. "The unintended consequences would be to put out of business the majority of all family-scale organic livestock farmers in Northern California who have the strongest commitment to the welfare of their animals."
The USDA will review comments and issue a final rule in the spring.