Farming Magazine - June, 2010


Drawing the Line

USDA sets pasture rules for organic dairy
By Tina Wright

Dr. Hubert Karreman believes that the new “pasture rule” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is important for organic dairy farmers. He said, “I think it will create a bright line between organic and conventional milk, and it will definitely support the organic consumer’s perception that cattle are getting meaningful amounts of pasture, not just token amounts of pasture, or none at all perhaps as previously in some operations. Organic consumers are assured that what they think is organic is organic.”

Karreman, a dairy cattle veterinarian, offered natural treatments and herd health care management services in Lancaster County, Pa., for 15 years through his practice, Penn Dutch Cow Care. Retiring from hands-on vet work in late 2009 on advice from his doctor, the 47-year-old veterinarian will continue as a consultant to develop nonantibiotic and natural herd health strategies for dairy farmers. For five years, Karreman served on the National Organic Standards Board that made its recommendations to the USDA on pasture regulations in 2005.

Farmers who ship organic milk must execute a plan to have all cows and calves over 6 months old outside and grazing at least 120 days a year, even longer where climate permits. Going into effect on June 17, 2010, the USDA rule for organic pasturing also requires that cows get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake (DMI) from grazing. These same standards apply to organically raised beef, except when beef cattle are being “finished” on organic grain before slaughter. Beef cattle can receive less than 30 percent of DMI at this time, although they must still have pasture access.

When the USDA first established organic standards in the 1990s, the requirement that organically raised cows have “access to pasture” was not specific. Some organic-certifying agencies enforced different standards than other organic certifiers. When Aurora Dairies in Colorado began shipping organic-label milk from thousands of cows on concrete that were fed organic feed in bunks, many organic dairy farmers and consumers protested that this was not organic milk.

Water tanks follow the grazing herd at Jerry Dell Farm.
Photo By Tina Wright.

A long road

What took so long to implement these regulations? A fair question, Karreman allows. He attributes some apathy about organic rules enforcement to the booming business in organic food sales, especially in the dairy sector. Before the organic milk market tanked in late 2008, organic milk sales had jumped 20 percent every year from 2002 to 2007.

“If you look at the big picture, and the cash registers are ringing up, why would you want to change the way business is if business is moving along?” Karreman ventured and added, “Perhaps the previous administration’s views on government intervention may have played a role.”

The USDA’s commitment to enforcing organic agricultural regulations was halfhearted in the Bush years, according to a recent investigation by the USDA’s own inspector general. Released in early March, the report describes great indifference and neglect in testing and enforcement of organic standards by the National Organics Program (NOP), the arm of the agriculture department that regulates the organic farming industry.

Miles McEvoy, the current deputy administrator of the NOP, has stated that enforcement of organic standards, including pasture requirements, will be a hallmark of his administration. On the NOP Web site, he maintains, for example, that an organic dairy producer getting 29 percent DMI into his cows from pasture feed would lose organic certification, saying, “There would be no point in having a specific metric if it is not enforced.”

Grazing and organic herd health

How does pasturing relate to dairy cattle health? Karreman replied, “There are numerous studies that show there is less lameness when cows are off concrete. They are in what I’ve found to be a kind of sleek athletic condition. They are getting fresh feed, probably a more diverse diet, which is certainly not a bad thing. They are getting fresh air instead of being inside all the time, good for the respiratory system.”

Penn Dutch Cow Care was serving 80 to 90 organic dairies and a few dozen conventional dairies interested in a more natural approach to herd health, primarily in the eastern Lancaster County area. Karreman uses expressions like “fighting battles in the trenches” when he talks about learning how to treat and manage dairy cows without antibiotics and hormones. Organic dairying demanded a new veterinary approach.

“I had to develop a system by which I could treat farming animals effectively, if not totally effectively, without antibiotics.” he explained. “That’s kind of my expertise. I’ve developed a nonantibiotic approach to infectious disease. It works pretty well consistently across farms if you catch the animals early.” Conventional animal agriculture is looking at organic practices to see if antibiotic use can be cut on all farms, given concerns about antibiotic resistance in farm animals and humans.

Some organic dairy farmers in the Northeast are happy to hear that pasture standards have finally achieved rule status at the USDA.

Kathie Arnold milks Holsteins on an organic dairy with her family near Cortland, N.Y. As a leader in organic dairy organizations like the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, she has pushed enforceable pasture regulations for years. She said, “The specific minimum grazing requirements in the new pasture rule will provide a floor for the amount of grazing required for organic dairy livestock. This will assure the consumer that organic dairy cows are in their natural environment, receiving a significant amount of their food needs from pasture during the grazing season, which is seen by so many organic consumers as integral to organic principles.”

Implementing pasture rules

Peter Miller, Northeast Regional Pool Manager for Organic Valley’s dairy division, points out that many organic certifiers and organic milk markets have insisted on pasture rules on their own. Miller said, “Since 2007, our co-op internally put forth our own set of standards, beyond the requirements that the dairy farmers had with their certifying bodies. So, we put forth 120 days or more access to pasture, 30 percent DMI during grazing season or more, and animals 6 months or older would require pasture.”

Organic Valley has over 400 organic dairy producers in the Northeast and New England. The Wisconsin-based agricultural cooperative markets a wide variety of organic food from organic farmers. Miller goes farm to farm himself as a coordinator with worksheets to review pasture management on dairy member farms. About the USDA’s rules on grazing, Miller said, “This will make everyone have the same criteria beyond our own internal program.”

Karreman has a monthly Moo News newsletter, and April’s grazing issue recommends the “best” publication on grazing cattle is a 60-page booklet called “Prescribed Grazing and Feed Management for Lactating Dairy Cows” by Karen Hoffman, Robert DeClue and Darrell Emmick. Details on getting this booklet and Karreman’s book, “Treating Dairy Cows Naturally: Thoughts and Strategies,” can be found on his Web site,

The $1.3 billion organic milk industry faces many of the same challenges as the conventional milk market. Organic dairy farmers who pasture intensively are hoping that milk from large confinement dairies, mostly in the West, will be siphoned out of the organic dairy market, drawing the surplus down as pasture rules are enforced. Organic dairies currently certified have one year (from the June 17, 2010 date) to comply with USDA pasture requirements. Newly certified organic dairies will need to be in full compliance from the start.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.