Organic pasture rules defined, finally

120 days. It's official. No more wrangling. No more organic internal strife. The USDA released the final ruling on pasture requirements for organic certification. "It clearly defines access to pasture for organic ruminant livestock and sets a mechanism into place for strict regulation and enforcement. This will help enable producers and certifying agents to consistently implement National Organic Program regulations. As a result, consumers can be assured that the U.S. organic program for organic livestock remains the most stringent in the world," said OTA's Executive Director Christine Bushway in a statement.

For all organic ruminant livestock (dairy, cattle and sheep) operations, the minimum number of days the animals must be on pasture is 120 days. The actual range of dates is variable because of the unpredictability of weather, pasture viability and grazing zones in the United States.

This was a sticking point for many dairy operations because rainfall varies so dramatically across the country. "You can meet this threshold whether you're in Vermont or Arizona," said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in a press statement.

According to the new regulations, a grazing season is the period of time when pasture is available for grazing, due to natural precipitation or irrigation. Grazing season dates may vary because of mid-summer heat/humidity, significant precipitation events, floods, hurricanes, droughts or winter weather events. Grazing season may be extended by the grazing of residual forage as agreed in the operation's organic system plan. Due to weather, season, or climate, the grazing season may or may not be continuous. Grazing season may range from 120 days to 365 days, but not less than 120 days per year.

While the pasture rule seems to suit most involved, not everyone is pleased with the results. The ruling allows for some dairy replacement animals to enter the system from the conventional side of the farming system, rather than strictly certified organic heifer operations.

Another notable change is that the USDA organic pasture ruling includes a provision that deems bees and aquatic animals (farmed fish) as "livestock." There are concerns from the Cornucopia Institute that organic dairy rules should not be mixed in the same pen as other animals, fearing this would delay decision making.

Public comments are still outstanding for pasture rules for organic beef cattle and will be taken through April 19 at the National Organic Program's Web site.

For a comparison of the original, proposed and final rule, download this document.

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