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Cornucopia Institute Underlines Problems with New Proposed USDA Standards on Organic Livestock

Hello all,

Sunday, [Nov. 16] in Washington, about 40-50 representatives of farm organizations, consumer groups, certifiers, and a smattering of farmers, met to discuss the pending livestock rule.  Last night a second meeting was sponsored by the Organic Trade Association.  Attending were most of the same players but this time the meeting was chaired by a Dean Foods/Horizon executive (first-hand report at the bottom of this communiqué-for those who are really policy wonks or go out for punishment).

You'll note that I didn't call it the "pasture rule" because all parties poignantly realize, at this point, that it's impact on the organic industry will far eclipses pasture for dairy cattle.  Participants at the meeting expressed concerns about the rule's impact on hog production, poultry and beef-in addition to how to make this a workable rule for dairy farmers.

The USDA has created a very challenging environment to reach our goal of shutting down the large factory farms that are producing "organic" milk. Cornucopia will continue to collaborate with other groups to craft a workable rule (the draft published by the USDA would probably put half the legitimate organic farmers in the country out of business).

Please find the handout we distributed to our colleagues at the meetings in Washington below.  These aren't the only points that are problematic in the draft rule but they're ones that we felt needed emphasis.

Mark Kastel --Cornucopia Institute


USDA Organic Livestock Rulemaking Issues
November 16, 2008

Language: We would encourage referring to the draft as the "livestock" rule, not the "pasture rule."  The implications far eclipse issues concerning pasture on dairy farms.  This is the most far-reaching and complex rewrite of the organic standards since their inception.

Bad Rulemaking
­Unintended Consequences: It is incumbent upon all of us to see that this rulemaking constrains the historic abuses in the nation's 14-17 "organic" CAFOs (which it currently does).  But, unfortunately, this rule, if implemented without major adjustments, would probably put out of business half or more the organic dairy farmers in this country and perhaps most of the existing beef producers (its impact on poultry production is not fully understood).

Important Messaging: We would highly recommend, in addition to any other comment, that we all reinforce the message, "No matter how long this rulemaking process takes it is clear that the current regulations are enforceable and we expect them to be enforced."

Current Rule Enforcement: Many of the complaints filed by Cornucopia have caused enforcement action to take place (others are languishing without ever having been investigated).  The 10,000-cow Vander Eyk dairy has been decertified.  Aurora was found to have "willfully" violated 14 tenets of the organic regulations (the lack of substantive penalties is, unfortunately, a separate matter).  In addition, more than once in the Federal Register notice, the USDA admits that some dairies are not following the current regulations and some certifiers are not correctly applying the standards. If they had been enforcing the current regulations we would not be here in this awkward position today.

Modifications to be Discussed/Considered

Grazing Season Requirement: We need to continue to press for "Pasturing cattle for the entire grazing season-but not less than 120 days."  Please note that we are not saying 120 days. The whole reason we have engaged in this collaborative process, together, for eight years, is to rein-in the giant factory farms that are violating the spirit and letter of the law. Possibly some of these, primarily desert dairies, could do 120 days, with 30% DMI-this is a bare minimum and should not be accepted as meeting the standard of organic production-if they have irrigation water available, the minimum is not good enough. They would still be in a position to squeeze operating margins for the legitimate family farmers that are producing

organic milk, presumably forcing many out of business.  Many families are not cash-flowing today because of the tremendous volume of factory farm milk on the market.  Consumers will become disenchanted if industrial-scale organic production becomes acceptable-we already estimate over 30% of the industry.

Grazing Season: This should be modified to include not just frost dates but ambient soil moisture.  Many of our member-farms that we have visited in the Pacific Northwest and California need the ability to pull their cattle off of land when it is saturated with moisture (to protect the environment, health of the cattle, and future productivity of the pasture.

Furthermore, in those areas of the West that depend exclusively on rainfall, having no irrigation water available, cattle should be allowed to graze during dry summer months without that being factored into the 30% average. Otherwise, we will create the incentive to pull cattle off of pasture, when the 120-day minimum is achieved as to not lower the seasonal average DMI consumption.

Important Caveat: We must not create a loophole for siting organic livestock production, inappropriately, in the desert.  That's why it's important to have the 120-day minimum maintained.  In addition, if crops are produced under irrigation in the region, pasture must be required to be irrigated! Where irrigation water is available, there is no excuse to say there is not adequate moisture.  Siting an organic dairy without water rights for irrigation, in a region where irrigation is required, should not offer an excuse to reduce the grazing season down to the minimum 120-days.

Pasture Definition: The pasture definition should be changed to include windrowing or other similar techniques.  In areas that receive all their moisture at once, some (California) producers will cut and windrow forage right in the pasture.  This maximizes pasture production, as not doing so would create overmature plants that would go to waste.  Language should be utilized to ensure that these crops are not removed from the pasture (such as green chopping or bailing) and fed to animals elsewhere.  This would conflict with our goal to increase DMI intake from pastures.

Frequency of Milking/Stocking Levels: Either we should ban milking more than twice a day or we should require special, additional auditing for any dairy suggesting they can achieve adequate DMI intake, and hours on pasture, milking three times a day or more. Virtually every legitimate organic dairy in the United States milks twice a day.  Likewise, stocking levels exceeding three cows per acre are highly unusual and should require mandated further scrutiny.

Water: Adequate water should be available when cows are in the pasture.

Origin of Livestock: As per the recommendation from the NOSB, all animals subsequently brought onto an organic farm should be managed organically from the last third of gestation.  It is highly objectionable that the USDA would attempt, at this point in time, to institutionalize what many in our industry view as their misinterpretation of the current regulations.  If rulemaking is to take place now, and we highly encourage it, it should be based on the NOSB recommendation which was promulgated with abundant input from all stakeholders.

Housing: Language within the draft rule could be interpreted to ban stall barns, utilized by a vast percentage of the current organic dairy producers. This new recommendation, never vetted by the NOSB or organic community, is unacceptable at this point in time.

Sacrifice Pasture: This is acceptable only as a recommendation and tool where appropriate. In many regions this would be in stark conflict with good conservation practices.

Riparian Fencing: Although laudable, this requirement would be very difficult and expensive to implement in many regions as written.  The cost analysis appears inaccurate and understated.  We would suggest this being designated as a recommendation and revisited at a later point.

Elimination of Confinement Finishing of Beef Cattle: Although present abuses in the organic beef industry need to be reined-in, this radical change in the rules would eliminate most of the organic beef production in this country.  Since this has never been reviewed and vetted by the NOSB and organic community, it should be tabled and brought up separately for further consideration.

Public Comment Extension: Because we are still, as a community, involved in the analysis stage, the effective public comment period-in terms of rank-and-file farmers who would like technical analysis before making their views known-will effectively be less than 30 days.  We would estimate as many as 30% of organic dairy producers do not utilize e-mail.  Because of this, the two-way time requirement for getting material out to our constituents, via the Postal Service, and having them return material to the USDA, might very well exceed the amount of time left in this process.  We've been at this, together, for eight years.  It would be a shame to disenfranchise some of the most important voices in this debate.

The draft rule contains many positive provisions, and Cornucopia has collaborated with the FOOD Farmer groups, and others,  on a draft of the rule now circulating.  Many of the modifications that have been proposed are well thought out.  We have just presented a few important areas for emphasis.


.. like they say, sausage making and the making of laws in Washington are two things you should not witness unless you have a strong stomach.

I'm just back from Washington, Oregon and California right been meeting with farmers to gauge the impact of the new livestock draft rule.  We've also had a tremendous amount of input, at Cornucopia, from dairy producers in the Midwest and Northeast.

The memo below is a list from Cornucopia's codirector, Will Fantle, who is witnessing the sausage making firsthand in Washington this week.


Hello -

I thought dairy farmers might be interested in a short report from the National Organic Standards Board meeting currently going on in Washington, D.C.

First, the National Organic Standards Board will not be considering the newly released rule pertaining to pasture and livestock.  Even though this is arguably the most extensive rewrite of the organic standards since they were adopted, this will not be weighed, debated or even discussed by our expert citizen advisors to the USDA on the NOSB.

Second, there have two meetings outside of the NOSB where the proposed rule has been the subject of intense discussion.  As was mentioned earlier on this list, both the National Organic Coalition/National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (on Sunday) and the Organic Trade Association (on Monday night) held gatherings to review the rule.

A number of concerns about the proposal were raised at both meetings and it is clear that many farmers and citizen groups are still trying to figure out the breadth and impact of the proposal.  The proposal contains many clearly identified objectionable and/or impractical pieces that have to be changed -- a number of these needed changes are seemingly agreed on by many of the parties involved in these discussions.  But there are other critical areas of continuing dispute.  The listing of these would be considerable and I will leave that for future communications but it is clear that farmers truly need to examine this rule and assess its impact on there operations.

This rule may dramatically impact you and your farming operation!!!

I must also comment on who was sitting at the table during these discussions.  At both the NOC/NCSA meeting and the Organic Trade Association meeting, the fox was sitting in the room with all of us hens. Representatives from the largest factory farm dairies were present.  Some may think that is OK, we don't.

Now I am really not concerned that they were at the OTA meeting, that is, after all, more their venue and they are some of the largest dues paying members.  In fact, the OTA meeting was mostly chaired by a representative of the largest dairy processor in the United States, a company that owns a giant industrial dairy and is buying a significant part of its milk from factory farm dairies.

I can tell you that at both meetings, all of the citizen groups, small farmers, certifiers and retail interests were pumped for and encouraged to express their particular concerns about the rule.  But the representatives of the factory farm interests expressed almost no views on the rule as to how it would affect their particular dairy operations.  I directly asked for their views at the OTA meeting and my question was met with instant hostility and left unanswered.

Folks, we wouldn't be sitting here today debating the issue of and perceived need for a new rule if it weren't for the abuses of the existing rule by the now 14-17 operating factory farms with 2000+ cow herds. The vast majority of family farm dairies are following the spirit and intent of the organic law. Furthermore, we wouldn't be watching the continued compression of pay price and income if it weren't for the millions of gallons of fluid milk being dumped on the organic market by the factory dairies--- we estimate this makes up 30-40% of the current organic milk market!

Will this rule proposal change this? How will it impact your dairy?

The last thing I will note is that it is even more unclear that the primary author of the draft rule, Richard Matthews, will be around to see this to conclusion.  He is retiring at year's end. Earlier, some of us thought that he would be kept on as a contractor/consultant to oversee whatever comes out of this process.  Last night he told others that he would not be staying on next year.

All in all, this is a murky mess and no matter what else we communicate to the USDA about the draft rule we should all, in unison, be demanding strict enforcement of the CURRENT regulations.

- Will Fantle
The Cornucopia Institute