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Access to Pasture: The Details

By Kathie Arnold, Lisa McCrory, Sarah Flack and Ed Maltby

The long awaited proposed access to pasture rule was released onto the Federal Register on Friday October 24, 2008. Overall this rule includes everything that producers have asked for and guarantees to consumers that organic milk production meets their expectations. It holds organic dairy producers to a high standard, a standard which consumers expect for products labeled as certified organic. It also gives very clear language that certifiers can use to implement the rule fairly and universally.
The 26-page document contains rulemaking language that provides measurable and verifiable pasture grazing standards, clearly prohibiting drylots and feedlots, and strengthening the role that the organic systems plan plays in organic certification. The proposed rule clearly states that pasture has to be managed as a crop and that farmers shall provide “year round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas…” and during the growing season, farmers shall provide not more than 70% of cow’s diet from fed feeds and at least 30% from pasture. Growing season is defined as from the last killing frost in the spring to the first killing frost in the fall or early winter.

In the first 24 pages there are excellent explanations for why different language was used in the proposed rule and the document clearly identifies the careful and thorough deliberations of the National Organic Program (NOP) and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), acknowledging the many comments sent to USDA from farmers, processors, consumers, and environmental and other NGO’s.

Click here for a side by side comparison of the new proposed language and the existing language. In some cases, such as beef production, it highlights how existing language has been very loosely interpreted by some certifiers. Below are the highlights of the proposed rule that NODPA gives a resounding thumbs-up to:

    1. The 30% DMI from pasture averaged over the grazing season by using the flip side – no more than 70% fed feeds – as a way of documenting the data. The 30% DMI figure is also mentioned as required from pasture.
    2. That 121 days is the minimum length of time for a growing season in the USA, but provides no excuse for producers with a longer growing season to just meet the minimum or to be arguing whether its 119 or 118 days as being sufficient.
    3. The growing season has been defined which allows producers to add more definition that would include the dormant season in the west. This definition recognizes the compliance issue that has already been encountered as some producers attempted to find loopholes in the existing rule.
    4. That feedlots and dry lots are prohibited. Even though there can be dry feeding areas as part of a progressive grazing plan, these terms are now associated by consumers as being “bad.”In many parts of the country barnyards, feeding areas, high traffic areas serve the specific needs of experienced graziers in inclement weather.
    5. Outdoor winter access is required.  The rule broadens the requirement for year round outdoor access with a few exemptions:  birthing, newborns up to six months of age, segregation for treatment of injury or illness, and for milking. These same exemptions apply to the requirement for pasture.  This is an area of the proposed rule that we will need to present comments and data on so it can be adapted to include inclement weather as an allowable exemption and to allow the use of high use areas, such as barnyards and shelters, during the non-growing season to protect soil and water quality and animal health and safety.
    6. Stocking rate has been dropped as a way to measure the necessary land base and productive pasture to meet adequate consumption of dry matter from pasture.
    7. The 30% DMI (no more than 70% fed feed) is required for all animals over 6 months. 
    8. Hay to be available to calves from at least 7 days. Many producers supply hay from birth for a ruminant so this is a useful requirement if difficult to monitor. There are a variety of ways of supplying hay that keeps it free from being soiled by manure or dirt.
    9. Bedding has to be certified organic and clarification that all feed has to be certified organic so that producers cannot use non-organic plant material as bedding with the potential that cows will eat it.
    10. Clarification that carriers in feed supplements and additives must be organic if they are agricultural ingredients.
    11. Clear definitions for graze, grazing, crop and dry matter--perhaps we also need a definition of grazing season.
    12. Pasture must be managed as a crop which, with the new definition of a crop, ties into the need to actively manage pastures.
    13. Maintaining year round access to clean water, indoors and outside. This may appear to be common sense, and is, but inspections for non-compliance have shown that this language needs to be included
    14. The organic systems plan must contain a comprehensive management plan for pasture. This plan must show the location and type of fence, the location of shade and the provision of water which will be a useful tool for certification inspectors to judge whether there is sufficient infrastructure for all the livestock to graze, not just a portion of the herd.  That plan can be re-submitted if no changes have been made.

As federal rulemaking is a long and cumbersome process, the USDA NOP has taken the opportunity with this rule to clean up areas that have been subject to compliance issues. The proposed rule has a section on the Origin of livestock - 205.236(iii). Richard Mathews, Chief of the National Organic Program Standards Development and Review Branch, remarked at the USDA Listening session on October 28th, 2008 that he would not have included this if he’d known it would take so long to publish the pasture rule.  It was originally included because of the changes caused by the Harvey lawsuit but if enough comments are received asking for its removal from this rule, it will be removed as NOP is already working on a proposed origin of livestock rule that will be a comprehensive rulemaking. The inclusion of it in this rule will give the community an opportunity to provide comments and data to support its arguments for a clear definition for replacements to be certified organic from last third of gestation, which is the case for all other ruminants.         

Some other areas where there is concern and language may need to be tweaked or changed are:

    1. The definition of growing season. The definition may need to include something to factor in the dormant period that plants may have in warm climates and for those areas that have long periods of rain.
    2. Inclement weather will need to be broadened to capture more livestock and / or soil unfriendly weather conditions. The definition might need to be amended to take into account “temporary” rather than permanent physical harm (cows splitting their legs when trying to walk on ice). Within the present rule there is no provision for ruminants to be denied access to the outdoors in inclement weather, only non-ruminants. This might need to be extended to give the exemption to ruminants as well during inclement weather, with a realistic level of risk to livestock and soil/pasture damage rather than just a small amount of rain or no fencing or farm personnel on vacation being used as an excuse.
    3. Sacrifice pasture has raised a lot of different questions, even from experienced graziers. As a temporary measure, a sacrificial pasture can be used very effectively as part of the organic system plan and out-wintering on sacrificial pasture is being successfully used on some farms, primarily seasonal dairies. However, a large proportion of farms either do not have soils meeting the parameters laid out for sacrificial pasture, do not have wintertime access to such fields, have rainy seasons that more than saturate even the best drained fields, or have a farm where such a system would violate their comprehensive nutrient management plan. We will need to work on how to cover this to ensure there is no harm to soil and water quality and long term damage to the land. Many producers are already working with these issues as part of their NRCS nutrient management plan.
    4. Measuring dry matter fed– there are plenty of questions about measuring and calculating the amount of dry matter fed that will not be burdensome to the producer but can accurately reflect what the livestock are eating – some different ways are at:

      The use of .03 (3%) of bodyweight as a base for calculating dry matter needs per animal per day is not a good fit for all classes and kinds of animals. It might be better to have several ways of calculating dry matter requirements by using charts, % body weight tables, or nutritionist’s ration sheets. It is important to figure rations for a mature animal based on the size and production average of the whole class of livestock, i.e. milking herd, dry cows, etc., rather than just one animal who may not be representative.
    5. The use of barns, barnyards and well managed outside feeding areas are common in the non growing season and during the growing season for supplementing pasture intake. We need to make sure barnyards or outside feeding areas are available when soil, water quality, animal health and/or humane treatment of livestock are compromised in a pasture setting.
    6. Record keeping and language around livestock having clean water available and that all feeding equipment needs to be cleaned weekly might need to be simplified to a stipulation that feeding and watering equipment must be kept clean or cleaned appropriately if that language is felt to be enforceable.
    7. Fencing of buffer zones will be an added cost to some producers but does represent required improvements in conservation and nutrient management plans. Initial fencing may be as simple as a single strand of electric fencing which can be improved over a period of time either with NRCS cost share or farm income. This requirement does not limit prescribed stream crossing or other NRCS practices. The NOSB's strong past support for biodiversity conservation reflects the long-held understanding of the organic community that the protection of natural resources and biodiversity is a central tenet of organic production practices and this rule needs to reflect that sentiment.
    8. The rule does not include an exemption from pasture for finishing organic beef in a feedlot. Beef have never had an exemption from pasture but the “stage of production” exemption has been used by some producers to enable feedlot feeding. “Stage of production” has been changed to “stage of life” and is only applicable to non-ruminant animals under the proposed rule.  The NOSB had recommended a 120 day exemption from pasture for beef.

We hope that this article is a reasonable analysis of the proposed rule. We see this as a work in progress involving many partners and organizations which will culminate in detailed commenting on the rule by December 23rd 2008. We will work closely with certifiers to ensure that any suggested language can be incorporated into annual inspections. Our comments will give data, both anecdotal and independent, to enable the NOP to justify any changes to the reviewing bodies in the federal rulemaking system. Any suggested language will be provided within the context of the whole rule, so that each section is consistent with the other. This is a great opportunity for the organic dairy community to work with the NOP to have a strong rule that can be implemented without resource to lawsuits, or the threat of them. We owe it to producers and consumers to get this right.