cows in field

New NOP Pasture Regulation Meets Expectations of Organic Community

By Harriet Behar, MOSES Organic Specialist

Added March 9, 2010. In a valentine to the organic community, the National Organic Program released the long awaited clarification to the pasture requirements for ruminants on February 12, 2010. After five listening sessions around the country and over 100,000 comments addressing the need for uniform pasture regulations, this rule provides a clear mandate that ruminants must be allowed to express their natural grazing behavior. The changes to the pasture regulation incorporate quantifiable measurements into the regulation, resulting in a mandate for pasturing of ruminant animals during the times of year when grazing is possible. These stronger standards should strengthen consumer confidence in the organic label, which has been somewhat eroded in the past few years due to the abuses of a few dairies who confined their dairy animals in feedlots rather than providing them with pasture as required in the organic rules. The loopholes in the earlier rule that allowed these abuses have been closed by this new regulation.

When will this new rule be enforced?

Operations that are currently certified organic will have until June 17, 2011 to fully comply with the changes required by this new regulation. Any new operations that become certified for the first time after June 17, 2010 will need to comply with all requirements of this regulation immediately. Operations who are certified organic for the first time between February and June 2010, have until June 2011 to comply. The National Organic Program, in their Q and A concerning this rule, has stated that they intend to enforce this regulation rigorously, and take the very detailed requirements seriously. In their words “There would be no point in having a specific metric if it is not enforced” The NOP has also stated that if environmental or other conditions do not allow for a farm to meet the requirements of this rule, then certified organic livestock cannot be produced at that location. The NOP has researched and found that there will be minimal economic cost to producers to comply with this rule. In some scenarios the cost of organic milk production will decrease when the farm switches to a grazing based system.

Basic Requirements of this Pasture for Ruminants Regulation

The main point of this rule requires that 30% of the dry matter intake of ruminant animals be provided from grazing (this is when an animal breaks off forage from a living plant whose roots are still attached to the soil, green chop transported to the animals is not pasture) or from forage that has been cut and is still laying in the pasture as “residual forage.” The minimum time of the grazing season in a calendar year is 120 days. This can be broken up into more than one time period, it need not be continuous. Farmers must manage their animals in such a way as to allow the animals to achieve this amount of dry matter intake from pasture, such as not providing large amounts of feed right before being let out of the barn, as well as having them out on pasture for enough hours per day to graze.

In addition, there are some specific documentation requirements to allow for this requirement to be verified by the inspector and certification agency. Many certified organic farmers already provide this documentation, so there should not be a lot of new paperwork for those who already have a complete organic system plan. The documentation necessary includes a description of the total feed ration for all ages and types of animals on the farm, including all feed produced both on and off the farm, the percentage of each type of feed and feed supplements fed to each age of animal (corn, small grains, beans, forages, pasture etc.) in the total ration, and changes to the rations made throughout the year in response to the use of grazing as part of the ration. This 30% dry matter intake from grazing for 120 days in a calendar year is the minimum, organic farmers can choose to have higher numbers than these when managing their organic ruminant livestock.

Feeding Areas during the Non-Grazing Season

When there is no green forage growing in the fields (in other words, it is not the grazing season), yards, feeding pads and/or feedlots can be used for access to the outdoors and feeding, as long as the area is large enough to prevent crowding and competition among the animals for the feed provided. Continuous total confinement of ruminants of any species is prohibited, period. In the October 2008 regulation there was a requirement for sacrificial pasture to be used during these non-grazing times of year, this requirement was removed and is not present in the final regulation. These non-grazing season exercise and feeding areas can be concrete or dirt, but must be designed and managed in such a way as to prevent environmental contamination from runoff. Frequent removal of wastes is one method to prevent this contamination, and also serves to promote animal health and well-being. The NOP has also stated verbally that housing cattle in free stall barns without access to the outdoor feeding areas would not be acceptable, check with your certifier if this interpretation is mandated.

Organic Bedding Required

This new regulation clarifies again, that all “roughage” used for bedding, which would be any agricultural product that the animal might consume, must be certified organic. Wood shavings or sand are not typically consumed by animals and are not agriculturally produced, these do not need organic certification. But straw, corn fodder or cobs, hay, soybean or flax stalks or any other item of this type must be organic in order to bed organic animals. The NOP has stated again that organic livestock feed crops grown by exempt from certification (under $5000 a year in organic sales) operations cannot be fed to certified organic livestock. Exempt producers have the option to become certified and then access the market for selling their organic livestock feeds.

Temporary Confinement

Previously the rule allowing confinement for a specific stage of life or production was used in a loophole to confine organic lactating animals. This new regulation clearly states that lactation is not a stage of life that would allow confinement, and thus not an exemption from the grazing requirement. The allowance for confinement of ruminants has been further clarified to include sorting or shipping livestock for sales or confining animals for up to one week before they would be shown at a fair or demonstration (ie. 4H). Cows that are being dried off may be confined for one week at the end of their lactation period, and cows may be confined for up to three weeks before freshening, as well as one week after freshening. Cows may be confined for short periods during the day for milking, with the organic system plan incorporating a milking schedule that would ensure sufficient grazing time to meet the dry matter intake mandated in this regulation.

Dairy calves may be confined up to six months of age, and after that must be on pasture during the grazing season and can no longer be individually housed. During that six month period the confined calf must have freedom of movement within their confined area, no tethering where they could not lie down or move about freely. Fiber animals such as sheep or angora goats can be confined for short periods to enable the producer to perform shearing activities.

Regulations for Finishing Beef – 60 day public comment period

While the vast majority of this regulation is effective June 17,2010, with an allowance for existing producers to come into compliance by June 17, 2011, the portion which addresses the finishing of beef animals is open for comment for 60 days,closing April 17, 2010. This section of the rule allows for beef animals to be held for up to 120 days in feedlots or yards. For smaller ruminants, the finishing period cannot exceed one-fifth of the animal’s total life, or 120 days, whichever is shorter. However, if the finishing period corresponds with the grazing season, these animals must still be maintained on pasture, but without the 30% dry matter intake from grazing requirement. The National Organic Program felt there was not enough discussion on this aspect of ruminant management, since most of the comments addressed dairy ruminants and not meat ruminant animals. Producers, consumers and others should provide information to the National Organic Program if they support this allowance for a 4 month finishing time, where there is a lesser dry matter intake requirement for these meat ruminant animals, or if they feel the rule should not allow this. All comments will be reviewed, and depending on what is presented, the NOP may leave the regulation as written or not.

Pasture Management and Recordkeeping

The management of pasture is to be included in the Organic System Plan, and is considered a crop like any other on the farm.

The management of the pasture should not lead to soil erosion or water contamination, the health and vitality of the pasture should be sufficient to provide the 30% dry matter intake required for their entire herd. Irrigation can be used, if available, to encourage healthy regrowth of the pasture during the season, and the pasture should be managed in a way that minimizes the spread of diseases or parasites among the animals grazing those pastures. If there is not sufficient pasture to meet this rule, maintain the health of the animal and the vitality of the pasture, then improved pasture management or a lower stocking density should be put in place. While European and Canadian standards have stocking rates for each class of animal, our regulation has not done this, in recognition that various climates and management strategies can have higher or lower stocking rates and still meet the minimum requirements for sufficient feed and a healthy environment. The proposed rule section requiring fencing to protect streams is not present in this final regulation, but producers still must rotate their pastures and/ or upgrade their stream access areas to protect water and soil quality.

Each pasture location needs to be identified in the organic system plan with maps, similar to all crop fields. The plan and maps should detail the type of grazing (mob, rotational, etc.) used on the pastures, the amount of pasture per animal, the duration of the grazing season, as well as all permanent fences ( moveable or temporary pasture fences not included), shade areas and water sources present. Protection of natural wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas should be described in the operator’s pasture plan. A description of the feed ration and the grazing aspects for all ages of animals should be included, as described earlier.

Lastly, since there are new terms added to the regulation that have not been present in the text before, 15 new items are added to the definition section of the regulation: Class of Animal, Dry Lot, Dry Matter Demand, Dry Matter Intake, Feedlot, Graze, Grazing, Grazing Season, Inclement Weather, Residual Forage, Shelter, Stage of Life, Temporary/Temporarily, and Yards/Feeding Pads.

Resources to Learn More

The National Organic Program is working diligently to implement this regulation across the U.S., with trainings provided to inspectors and certifiers and worksheets for farmers and others to calculate the various aspects of dry matter, helping them with rotational grazing stocking rates and more. Q and A’s are also available on the NOP website. - click on pasture regulations.

Reprinted with permission from MOSES Organic Broadcaster Newsletter. Harriet Behar came to MOSES after 19 years as an organic inspector and educator of organic farming and processing systems. She has 35 years experience growing and marketing organic specialty crops. Harriet is the MOSES Organic Specialist and coordinates many of the MOSES sponsored field days and training events as well as the numerous farm shows and other conferences MOSES attends. She spent many hours listening at the National Organic Standards Board meetings as well as representing MOSES in the National Organic Coalition. The MOSES toll free organic information line is staffed by Harriet. She and her husband Aaron Brin have an organic farm near Gays Mills, WI