Farming Magazine - June, 2010

COLUMNS

Organics: The NOP's New Access to Pasture Rule

By Diane Wells

On February 12, the National Organic Program (NOP) issued a final rule that amends prior livestock production regulations. The intent of the rule is to specify and clarify livestock feed and living conditions so that certifying agents have something more concrete to work with when certifying such farms. It is also an effort to reassure the public that organic livestock are indeed pastured during the grazing season.

Allow me to set the scene. Prior to this rule, Section 205.239(a)(2) of the code of federal regulations simply stated organic ruminants must be provided “access to pasture.” Access frequency and duration was not stipulated, nor was the feed value to be derived from such pasture stipulated. Also, Section 205.239(b)(2) stated a farmer could temporarily confine an animal because of the “animal’s stage of production.” By 2005, due to a number of reported complaints, it had become apparent that some large-scale organic dairy farms in the West were using lactation as an allowable condition for confinement. Milking cows were being kept inside and fed processed feed, only to be released to pasture when the milk had dried up. In April 2006, the NOP sought input on whether the then-current role of pasture in the program’s regulations was adequate for livestock. Over 80,500 comments were submitted. Of those, 28 were opposed to changing the pasture requirements. The remaining 80,472 comments supported more stringent standards, and the vast majority of those spoke specifically to organic dairy cow management.

After nearly four years of meetings, comment sessions and negotiations, the stipulations of the final rule are as follows:

  • Provide year-round access for all animals to the outdoors.
  • Recognize pasture as a crop.
  • Establish a functioning management plan for pasture.
  • Incorporate the pasture management plan into the farm’s organic system plan.
  • Provide ruminants with pasture throughout the grazing season for their geographical location.
  • Ensure ruminants derive a minimum average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake requirement from pasture over a 120-day minimum grazing season.

The 30 percent DMI threshold was what organic producers, representing various geographic locations and farm sizes, could agree upon. It was deemed generally attainable for all farms, regardless of location or growing conditions. For each animal type and class (i.e., heifers, dry cows, lactating cows), DMI is to be calculated as an average for the entire grazing season. If any animal type or class falls below 30 percent DMI, that group will lose its organic certification. It is important to note that the 120-day grazing season does not have to be continuous; it can span many months of the year if inclement weather or forage conditions warrant it. The NOP has a number of resources on its Web site (www.ams.usda.gov/NOP/) to help farmers estimate dry matter demand and calculate DMI. Ruminant animals exempt from the 30 percent DMI threshold include breeding bulls, animals justifiably denied pasture and slaughter stock in the finishing phase.

The farmer’s organic system plan must describe the amount of pasture provided per animal, the average amount of time spent grazing every day, the portion of the total feed requirement provided from pasture, under what circumstances an animal will be temporarily confined, and how the farmer will go about maintaining records to demonstrate compliance with the pasture requirements. The plan must then be verified every year via on-site inspections.

This rule takes effect on June 17, 2010. Farms seeking organic certification between February 17 and June 17 will be expected to comply. Farms certified prior to February 17 must make the appropriate changes by June 17, 2011. If a farm is deemed noncompliant, and it fails to correct that noncompliance, certifying agents and the NOP will suspend or revoke the farm’s organic certification. Civil penalties, $11,000 per violation, may also be issued for willful violations.

As I write, the NOP is requesting comments on the sections of the rule that pertain to finish feeding of ruminant slaughter stock (section 205.239(d)), such as length of the finishing period, issues stemming from regional differences and the use of feedlots. The deadline for comments was April 13, 2010. Depending on the comments received, further action may be taken and the rule’s effective date may be suspended for slaughter stock producers.

For a complete summary of the pasture rule and what it means for organic farmers, visit the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance Web site at www.nodpa.com/pasture_rule.

The author, a monthly contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.