Out to Pasture

March 12, 2010

sites/default/files/Cows_in_Pasture_0.jpgAt first glance, the recent Access to Pasture ruling from the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) can be boiled down to a few simple ideas: cows (and other ruminant animals) on organic farms should eat grass; the best place to do this is on a pasture, unless the weather doesn’t allow it, in which case their diets should still include a good portion of dried grass. On the other hand, because the ruling is meant to apply to both dairy and livestock producers, the outcome is considerably more complex than it sounds.

The national organic standards have always required that organic dairy and beef animals be provided with “access to pasture.” What that means, exactly, has been up for interpretation. The rule did not specify how often or for how long they had access, nor did it specify what percentage of their food had to come from pasture. Now, ruminant animals on organic farms must be on pasture for least 120 days (although not necessarily continuous) a year. The rest of the time, at least 30 percent of their diet must come from “dry matter” — grass that is dried and fed to cows in the winter — rather than grain-based feed.

Doing the Math

Once home to over 350 dairies, Sonoma and West Marin now have fewer than 50 working dairies. Today, thanks in part to the Access to Pasture ruling, people like Mark Chass say they’re cautiously optimistic about the future of small-scale organic dairy production in the area. Chass worked for years as an inspector and organic certifier, but was recently hired on as the organic standards expert at Spring Hill Jersey Cheese, a company that milks it’s own herd of cows to produce organic cheese and butter. From what he’s seen, Mark says, “West Sonoma County dairies shouldn’t have any problem complying with the new ruling.”

Organic milk and cheese producers will, however, have a lot more work to do. At the crux of the challenge is the area’s Mediterranean climate, which allows for several windows of green high-nutrition pasture throughout the year, but requires a distinct strategy for grazing rotation and adequate space for growing dry matter. Fresh grass is almost 90 percent water, so farmers will have to grow enough to constitute the required 30 percent. In addition to planning, this will also mean more paperwork and, in some cases, the need to hire consultants and experts.

“In the summer, the air is dry, the sun is out, and the grass is usually too dry for grazing,” says Chass. During the winter, when it’s rainy, dairies have to keep the cows indoors so their manure doesn’t impact the local area’s watershed. Fulfilling the 120-day rule, according to Chass, will mean putting the cows out to pasture for around a month in the fall, and two to three months in the spring. Because it’s a national rule, he adds, “they had to come up with a figure that would work for Sonoma County, Vermont, and everywhere else in between. The result isn’t perfect, but it’s doable.”

Although the ruling is new, it is the product of a decade-long process and a great deal of lobbying by small farmers; most Sonoma and Marin dairy farmers have known this shift was on its way for a while. And because of the need to grow dry matter, while adequately grazing dairy cows, Chass says some farms have had to downsize their herds or increase their pasture sizes. It’s not an ideal time for any small business to be sacrificing quantity for quality, but many hope the ruling will give the $24.6 billion organic milk industry more integrity and small producers a better chance at success.


David Evans of Marin Sun Farms agrees that there is value in the ruling. He says, “I hope that it rebuilds the market for small dairies – a market that got saturated because the rules weren’t good enough.” Sadly, he also points out that a similar scenario is unlikely in the livestock arena because the new ruling includes a loophole that will most likely still allow organic beef cattle to be “finished” or fed grain for four months before slaughter, as well as an exemption to the 30% dry matter rule.* Meat cattle must still technically have “access to pasture,” but most organic advocates agree that the statement is essentially meaningless without a required number of days.

“The majority of the public who are buying organic meat don’t think of the cows spending their last four months standing in a feedlot,” says Evans. “Some feedlots are better than others, but all in all it’s the same principle.”

Evans doesn’t think the political will exists at the moment to move the majority of organic beef production away from the feedlot model. This is just one reason he hasn’t moved Marin Sun Farms toward organic certification; he just doesn’t think the rules are stringent enough. Meanwhile, his cows are outside, eating grass all year round. “I understand the difficulty in this because they’re trying to set a one-size–fits-all rule,” he says, “but to me, animals on pasture is just a given.”


Photo of cows courtesy of the Wiki Commons.

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