The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed stricter grazing standards for cows certified to produce organic dairy products, increasing grazing days to at 120 days a year. Also, thirty percent of the cows’ feed must be from such grazing, rather than being fed organically produced food in a feedlot or an indoor facility.
The change, eight years in the making, is significant because consumers pay up to twice as much for organic milk, whose sales are growing but are only about 6 percent of the $17 billion spent annually on milk.
There are about 1,800 dairies with some 87,000 organic dairy cows in the United States, more than 93 percent of them small operations in the Northeast or Midwest, according to the 26-page proposal. Though only 7 percent of the farms are in the West, they account for a third of the production.
Some organic supporters, led by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy organization, said that industrial-size dairies that supply some of the country’s largest retailers with private-label brand organic milk were skirting the standards. That let the companies lower production costs and gain an unfair advantage over smaller producers..
The agency is taking comments on the proposal until Dec. 23. A preliminary proposal on stricter grazing requirements in 2006 attracted about 250 comments from consumers, trade groups, retailers and producers.
Though the proposal addresses the “access-to-pasture” problem, some organic farmers say they worry that new issues may slow progress on the rule. For the first time, the agency says it is considering adding bees and aquatic species as organic “livestock.” And it includes provisions about beef cattle and whether non-organic heifers can continue to be used as replacements in a herd.
Barbara Robinson, who oversees the National Organic Program at USDA, said the proposal is expansive because the agency wanted to lay out as many options as possible for the organic industry.