A rule clarifying the use of pasture in raising ruminant livestock organically has been announced by USDA.

“The final rule … will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products,” says Tom Vilsack, USDA ag secretary.

The final rule, amending National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, provides certainty to consumers that organic livestock production is a pasture-based system in which animals are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season. The majority of organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers are already grazing animals and maintaining pastures that meet the requirements of this rule. These standards contain clear requirements that will provide greater assurance that all producers are being held to the same standards.

USDA received a substantial number of comments on provisions of the rule affecting finish-feeding practices of slaughter livestock, and has extended the comment period for this provision for 60 days. Finish feeding, commonly used by organic farmers and ranchers to improve the grade of beef, involves feeding livestock grain.

"It is difficult to decouple standards for milking cows from standards for finish feeding," says Kathleen Merrigan, USDA deputy secretary. "Since finish feeding gets swept up into this dairy rulemaking, we are taking an extra step and inviting public comment on the finish-feeding requirements. We want to be certain that our actions pertaining to finish feeding are aligned with organic principles."

This final rule is the culmination of a process that was initiated in 2005 when the National Organic Standards Board recommended that ruminants obtain a minimum 30% dry matter intake for at least 120 days. The proposed rule, published on Oct. 28, 2008, received over 26,000 comments from producers, retailers, handlers, certifying agents, consumers, trade associations, organic associations, animal welfare organizations, consumer groups, state and local government entities and various industry groups.

The main components of the rule include:

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

The rule becomes effective 120 days after publication, on June 17, 2010. Operations that are already certified organic will have one year to implement the provisions. Operations that obtain organic certification after the effective date will be expected to demonstrate full compliance.

The 60-day extended comment period pertaining to the finish-feeding provisions only will end April 19, 2010. Specific questions to consider and instructions for submitting comments, as well as copies of the final rule and additional information, are available on the NOP Web site at http://www.ams.usda.gov/NOP.