When USDA’s National Organic Program amended its pasture standards for organic livestock production nearly four years ago, some producers applauded while others grumbled.

The “pasture rule,” as it has come to be known, states that at least 30% of organic dairy cows’ dry matter intake must come from pasture for at least 120 days per year.

Many organic dairies were hard-pressed to meet the new standards, remembers Cheyenne Christianson, a member of Organic Valley Cropp Cooperative, La Farge, WI.

“Some farms are land-limited, or they may have land down the road a couple miles. That’s the hard part, having access to enough good grass. There was one farmer I know of who couldn’t even be organic anymore,” says Christianson, a Chetek, WI, dairyman. Large grain-based dairies also found the rule a challenge.

Many Organic Valley producers, however, welcomed the rule; it somewhat mirrored the cooperative’s own standard first drafted in 1995.

“Before 2010, our rule was a benign, general rule, but most of us farmers wanted the 30%,” says Christianson, who is on the cooperative’s dairy executive committee, a farmer-run advisory group.

The pasture rule added “some teeth,” he adds, and Organic Valley provided its members the resources to meet it. Its farm resources department, made up of a soils agronomist, three veterinarians, an animal welfare specialist and a ruminant nutritionist, is “devoted to helping farmers with technical issues,” says Mark Kopecky, the soils agronomist.

“It was a big leap for some of these guys to go from just having an exercise lot to actually relying on their pastures for a good share of their dry matter intake for that 120 days.

“We at the co-op are very aware that we have to be doing things proactively to make sure that we’re not only helping our farmers meet the minimum, but trying to help them get the best use that they can out of their pastures.”

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A ruminant nutritionist helps producers formulate rations that work with the pasture they have, using feed that “keeps the animals healthy and production and quality high,” Kopecky says.

For Butch Lay and his Muddy Water Farm in Madisonville, TN, co-op resources were just what he needed. Lay had tried “the no-grain approach” after transitioning to organic, but didn’t like the condition of his cows.

Facing decreased milk production and thin animals, he called Silvia Abel-Caines, the co-op’s ruminant nutritionist. “She told us we needed to feed a little grain just to help convert this grass over. It takes a little energy to convert all that protein. So we’re feeding small amounts of grain now, and the cow condition looks real good.”

There’s still a lot to learn, Kopecky says. “We understand what makes good-quality hay and haylage, but the next frontier is trying to get higher energy into our forages.”

The high cost of feed grains is a drain on an organic producer’s bottom line, he says, and by working with universities, Extension staff and researchers, “we’re going to help everybody cut back on the amount of supplements farmers use.”

The co-op is also helping farmers improve their soils. “We need to get our soils right,” Lay says. “Focus more on your soils, and the cows will take care of themselves.”

Organic Valley’s regional dairy pool managers work closely with farmers, too, putting on pasture walks and field days that support its 1,800 members in 35 states. The events let farmers learn from each other. The co-op also hosts monthly teleconferences that Christianson says are popular gatherings where “farmers themselves are presenting their experiences.”

“We’ve learned many things that work well for organic systems, and we still have lots of questions to answer as we keep moving forward,” admits Kopecky. “But it’s this desire to learn and educate that has allowed Organic Valley to help members, for decades, to get the most out of their pastures.”

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