USDA Establishes Strong Organic Standards for Pasture, Livestock

by Mark Kastel

After over 10 years of lobbying, family farmers across the country, who produce organic milk, are celebrating the release of strict new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations that establish distinct benchmarks requiring the grazing and pasturing of dairy cows and other livestock.

Many hope that the new rule will put an end to the abuses that have flooded the organic market with suspect milk from a handful of mega-dairies generally confining thousands of animals in feed lots and barns.

“We are delighted by the new rules,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.  “The organic community has been calling for strong regulations and its enforcement for much of the past decade.  Cheap organic milk flowing from the illegitimate factory farms has created a surplus that is crushing ethical family farm producers.”

Victory Crowns Years of Work

The issue has been a lightning rod for controversy in the organic community.  At least five times during the last decade, the National Organic Standards Board – a key USDA advisory panel made-up of industry stakeholders – passed guidance or recommended regulatory changes clarifying the requirement that dairy cows and other ruminants must be allowed to exhibit their native behavior and consume a meaningful amount of their feed from grazing on pastures.

New rulemaking had been delayed by the Bush administration, using a myriad of tactics, some of which are being scrutinized in an ongoing investigation by the USDA’s office of Inspector General.

The Cornucopia Institute, on behalf of its family farmer members, also filed numerous formal legal complaints with the USDA’s National Organic Program calling for investigations into alleged violations of organic livestock management practices occurring on many of the 20 largest factory farm facilities.

Scandal Spurred Action

The biggest scandal in the history of the organic industry centered around one such USDA investigation with the regulators finding “willful” violations of 14 organic regulations on factory farms operated by Aurora Dairy, a $100+ million company based in Colorado (Aurora produces private-label, store brand milk for Wal-Mart, Costco and large grocery chains).

“The public controversies concerning Aurora, and alleged improprieties by the largest milk processor in the country, Dean Foods (Horizon Organic), put increasing pressure on the USDA to rein-in the scofflaws in this industry,” Kastel added.

“I am confident that the new rule, along with a commitment to rigorous enforcement by certifiers, will put an end to these abuses and restore fairness to the organic dairy sector,” said Kevin Engelbert, a dairy farmer from Nichols, NY who milks 100 cows.  “Consumers will be able to purchase organic dairy products with confidence, knowing that regardless of the label, the animals who produced the milk were on pasture, as nature intended,” Engelbert added.

The USDA has announced that they will begin this month hosting a series of workshops around the country with the nation’s 50+ organic certification agencies and other industry stakeholders.  The sessions are intended to clearly define the meaning and intent of the new rule so that certifiers, who conduct annual farm inspections and review organic system management plans, will understand what the regulations require from farmers and only approve management practices that strictly conform to it.

Rule Specifics

Specifically, the new rules require that dairy cows and other ruminants be out on pasture for the entire growing season, but for not less than 120 days.  It also requires that the animals receive at least 30% of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasturing.  In addition, organic livestock will be required to have access to the outdoors year-round with the exception of temporary confinement due to mitigating and documentable environmental or health considerations.

“These minimum benchmarks will assure consumers that industrial-scale dairies don’t just create the ‘illusion’ of grazing and continue producing illegitimate organic milk,” said Kastel.  He continued by emphasizing to consumers that, “Based on Cornucopia’s research 90% of all name brand dairy products are produced with high-integrity — the handful of factory farms are bad aberrations and will now be dealt with.”

The 120-day/30% DMI benchmarks were negotiated reference points agreed-upon by organic community stakeholders and arrived at after a series of meetings and discussions, nationwide, over much of the last half dozen years.  The rules were also a carefully crafted consensus aimed at ensuring that legitimate organic dairy operations could truly provide meaningful pasture for their herds across the wide range of climatic zones in the U.S.  It is estimated that the rule will impact upwards of 2,000 organic dairy farmers.

Cornucopia, a farm policy research group, along with agricultural producers and other organizations, are carefully scrutinizing other impacts on the most sweeping rewrite of the federal organic standards since their inception in 2002.  In addition to dairy cattle, the standards will assure humane animal husbandry practices in eggs, poultry, beef and pork production.  The USDA will also be accepting public comments for 60 days on one exclusion from the pasture minimum, that for “finish feeding” on grain for ruminants, including beef cattle — an issue that proved controversial and elicited a wealth of public comments when the original draft rule was published.

“I, along with many other family farmers, watch with intense frustration as the seemingly unprincipled mega dairies continually bend the rules and engage in unfair competition with me,” said Rebecca Goodman, a certified organic dairy producer who milks 40 cows in Wonewoc, WI.  “I am thankful that the USDA is now standing with us to preserve the integrity of the organic food label.”

“When Secretary Vilsack met with organic dairy farmers in Wisconsin this past summer he told us that he would ‘level the playing field’ for small and medium producers,” Goodman added.  “These new regulations appear to be the first of what I hope will be many steps by the Secretary following through on this important commitment.”


The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community.  Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.  Their web page can be viewed at   You can contact Mark Kastel at 608.625..2042.


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