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The Proposed Rule—How Does it Fit On Your Farm?

By Kathie Arnold

The recently published proposed pasture rule encompasses a wide range of topics from minimum pasture intake to outdoor access to clarifying bedding sources, as its intention is to address other compliance issues as well as pasture. It is a very comprehensive writing that approaches the pasture topic from multiple directions to ensure closure of any possible loopholes. As a result, the proposed rule has a large number of changes in many sections of the regulation.

I have spoken with a number of people from around the country and this article is a first take on how some areas of the proposed rule, as it currently stands, will affect my farm and other farms. My ears are open and I welcome input from other producers who I haven’t had an opportunity to hear from yet.

The main focus of this proposed rule is to provide changes to ensure that organic ruminants are grazing throughout the growing season. Included is the requirement that ruminants are to be provided “with an average of not less than 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing throughout the growing season”. The definition of growing season states that it “may range from 121 to 365 days”, determined by the average period between killing frosts for the local area. This definition works in a large share of the country but will be problematic in parts of the West and perhaps deep southern areas. In some areas the freezing temperature period of the year is very short or non-existent, yet there is a natural season of dormancy for forage plants or extensive rain during the winter season.

If those time periods could be acknowledged as non-grazing times, then most all existing organic dairy farms should not have a problem meeting this requirement for their mature animals, as most already meet this level or greater of pasture intake for 120 days or more. It is gratifying that the proposed rule has come out so strongly on the pasture front to have a pasture requirement that will be measurable and enforceable.

According to the National Climatic Center data, my area (central NY) has 167 days in our growing season as defined in the proposed rule, yet most years we are able to graze for 200 or more days and will normally average 40% or more intake from pasture with the milking herd. If I just considered the grazing that occurs within the time period as defined in the rule, our percentage would be higher because I wouldn’t be averaging in the shoulders of the season when we get less pasture intake.

The fact that the proposed rule requires 30% DMI from pasture for all ruminants 6 months of age and older will require some farms to ramp up their heifer grazing systems—while their heifers may be on pasture, the youngstock may not be achieving 30% or more DMI from pasture.

This new standard will not necessitate change for us as we keep all of our animals on pasture during the grazing season but what will be time consuming and a new task for us will be the requirement in the proposed rule to document the dry matter demand of each class of animal on a monthly basis as well as document what they are fed. With the makeup of youngstock groups on most farms, changeable over time in terms of bodyweight (as animals grow over the season), it may be challenging to determine and verify each group’s dry matter intake demands and this documentation requirement will undoubtedly cause some angst.

Daily documenting of what the milking herd is fed is something we already do and a monthly check for certification purposes will not be an added task as I am doing it once a month for DHI records. I expect this should not be a burden to farmers and is a part of good management practices.

The challenges of year round management of lifestock on pasture

The stipulation in this proposed rule for year round management of livestock on pasture will be very problematic for a large share of farms, including ours. Our problem begins with having steep ascent / descent out of and into our barnyard which would be a safety issue for cows walking on it when covered in snow—as it would soon turn to ice with the passing of enough hooves. Even if they could get to the pastures, we have limited acres that are well drained, but even they would get muddied up and the stand damaged by cows spending time on them during the non-growing season.

These well drained fields also happen to be our highest fertility fields, being they were the only fields accessible for winter spreading of manure before we put in manure storage facilities. If the cows were laying and feeding on them all winter long, they would grow even higher in fertility and then we wouldn’t have that manure in storage to transport to our low fertility fields when they are accessible for spreading during the growing season.

We also would not be able to provide water for the cows on pasture in the winter as the pasture water system is not freeze proof. And because our herd is milking year round, being out on pasture in the winter could lead to issues like frostbite and milk quality issues because of exposure to mud.
There are some farms that are successfully using sacrifice pastures during the non growing season, but they are mostly seasonal herds with amenable farmsteads and land. Most farms will find year round management on pastures to be detrimental to the health of their pastures, out of compliance with their farm’s nutrient management plans, and not in the best interest of their animal’s welfare.

When the snow fell in October: A real life example

When I came home from Auburn, NY on the afternoon of the USDA Listening Session on October 28, I found our farm under a few inches of wet, heavy snow. We went right to work bringing the calves off pasture and into a shelter for those still on milk and moved the weaned calves into another pasture where they had access to a bedpack shelter.

The next day, our older heifers and dry cows were brought off the hill that was under even more snow, and put in their winter housing area where we feed baleage on a concrete pad and where they have free access to a freestall barn and a loafing area. A few days later, the snow had melted and a few of the pastures were dry enough that the dry cows, older heifers, and the milking cows could go back out on pasture again until the weather turns foul once more and winter weather is here for good or the pasture runs out, whichever happens first.

Had we had to keep them all out on pasture during this early snowfall time period, the pastures would have received significant damage, as well as the pasture water system was likely frozen for a good share of the time. The cows too, were very eager to leave that environment and come in where they didn’t have to root under the snow to find food.

We are able to provide outdoor access in the non-grazing season for our milking cows but that access is on an NRCS designed concrete barnyard where the waste and runoff flows right into the manure storage, where the cows have access to free choice hay and minerals and access to a heated waterer. Some farms in colder climates than ours are unable to always provide daily outdoor access because they get far more extreme cold temperatures and icing conditions—both of which can jeopardize the health and safety of the animals.

There will need to be adjustment in the proposed rule regarding outdoor access to ensure that farmers can appropriately take care of their animals during inclement weather and the non growing season to ensure that the health and safety of animals is given due regard as well as not causing risk to soil and water quality or damage to pastures. Some of the proscriptive nature of the proposed rule beyond the pasture requirement during the growing season is best to be melted away to let each farmer make the best management decisions for their own farm environment and animals.

Bedding requirements

Another area addressed in the proposed rule is bedding, requiring that all straw, corn cobs, hay or other plant matter used for bedding be certified organic. There will be some farms that will have to change their purchasing habits and switch to buying certified organic bedding material--that will bring them in line with what most farmers have already been doing. It will also help those organic farmers who have been selling their organic straw into the conventional market because there was no demand for it from organic farms. It’s also another small area that increases the integrity of the system so there can’t be inadvertent eating of non-organic plant material by livestock.

Why the rewrite of the rule is necessary

If all operations could be counted on to follow the spirit and intent of the current organic standards as well as the actual letter of the regulations, it wouldn’t be necessary to be going through this re-write of the rule. However, that has clearly not been shown to be the case and we need to ensure the long term confidence of the consumer in the integrity of organic dairy. A rule that will require real pasture of all organic dairy operations is a must and will bring value added benefit to producers.
It is not easy in any sense of the word to rewrite this rule to close all the loopholes yet not make things unworkable on some levels.

My hat is off to Richard Mathews for working so diligently on writing this rule and for recognizing that changes will be needed before it becomes a final rule. Many times, both in the preamble to the proposed rule and at the 10/28 Listening Session, Richard invited comments and asked for suggested wording to move this to a final rule. We need to provide constructive comments and direction. The rule needs to require real grazing of organic livestock yet allow farmers to best determine the non grazing season management of their animals for the health and welfare of both the livestock and the land.

Kathie Arnold farms in central NY with her husband and his brother. She can be reached at or 607/842-6631.