We’d all like to think when we buy organic milk or any organic dairy product that the cows have happily and leisurely grazed in a pasture each day before making their way up to the barn to be milked. Unfortunately, because of the way the United States Department of Agriculture had worded the rules for organically raised cows, that didn’t have to be so.

The former rule, which has just been amended, said that livestock must “have access” to pasture. Having access to a pasture doesn’t mean the same thing as actually grazing on pasture.

As sales of organic milk increased over the past decade or so, many organic dairy farms began looking more and more like traditional factory farms. Milk producing livestock for some of the larger organic dairy companies technically had access to pasture, but they spent less time pasturing and more time in cramped conditions.

In 2008, the Cornucopia Institute released a study and rated dairies on their livestock’s living conditions. They found several of the larger dairy producers “ethically deficient.” These dairies included Horizon, one of the most recognizable organic labels, and Aurora, a dairy that packages their milk under private labels for stores like Costco and Safeway.

Since the USDA rule on having access to pasture was silent about the amount of time livestock should spend on pasture, many of the larger organic dairy companies could say they were doing nothing wrong. However, Cornucopia Institute’s report along with cries of fowl from other groups got the USDA’s attention.

On Friday, the USDA clarified “the use of pasture in raising organic ruminants.”

Here are some of the new rules that will go into effect on June 17, 2010.

  • Animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year;
  • Animals must obtain a minimum of 30 percent dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season;
  • Producers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil and water quality; and,
  • Livestock are exempt from the 30 percent dry matter intake requirements during the finish feeding period, not to exceed 120 days. Livestock must have access to pasture during the finishing phase. 

It’s good to see that the USDA clarified the rules in a way that benefits the animals, not big organic ag. 

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Happier organic cows
The USDA clarifies the pasture grazing rule for organic dairies.