cows in field

Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices

Proposed Rule

On April 13, 2016, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) published their long awaited regulations concerning Animal Welfare with a Proposed Rule entitled Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. The expectation of the organic livestock community was that this rule would concentrate on poultry especially clarifying outdoor access and build on the Access to Pasture regulation of 2010 by implementing NOSB recommendations. Unfortunately, this is not what happened.

Many organic producers looked at the benefits that the USDA had stated for their Proposed Rule, Establishes a clear standard protecting the value of the USDA organic seal to consumers, and groaned with the realization that consumers generally have a vision of livestock production that does not relate to reality. The publication was greeted with dismay from organic dairy producers as some of the provisions would require their cows to wallow in mud to maintain year round access to the outside and ban the use of tie stalls and free stalls for housing. The drafters of the regulation had seemingly ignored the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the numerous comments submitted by NODPA, Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers)* and other groups in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The organic poultry producers have taken their protest to Congress and tried to introduce a rider into the Appropriation Committees of both House and Senate to block the Proposed Rule from becoming a Final Rule. FOOD Farmers and many organizations immediately requested an extension of the comment period from 60 to 90 days to allow for research into all the provisions, consultation with producers and the time to develop clear recommendations.

Many organic livestock producers, their representative organization, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and certifiers have been asking for clarity and consistency in the application of existing regulations to livestock health care and living standards for many years. The Organic industry is lagging behind the conventional livestock groups that have published Animal Welfare Standards for different ruminants, non-ruminants and poultry. The Humane Society, Animal Welfare Approved and other organizations have been critical of the lack of livestock welfare standards mandated by organic regulations, plus the lack of consistency in application of existing regulation, especially with poultry. The lack of clear standards has weakened the integrity of the organic label with consumers and without the publication and implementation of credible standards, organic livestock will lose market share to other certifications that are not so rigorous in their accountability but more clear in their requirements that meet consumer expectations. There is also an increasing need to clarify regulations for the worldwide market as imports of meat and dairy have increased substantially over the last decade and we need a level playing field for all participants.

The history of the development of these welfare standards dates back to 1994 when the NOSB made the first of its nine recommendations regarding livestock health and welfare. Between 1997 and 2000, AMS issued two proposed rules and a final rule which was implemented in 2002 regarding national standards for the production and handling of organic products, including livestock and their products. For ruminant livestock, the Access to Pasture Rule provided the opportunity to bring clarity and specification to many areas of outdoor access, dairy rations and housing as the rulemaking process was extended to cover the many areas that had been challenged in the courts of law. For avian livestock, there has been guidance, certifier training and piecemeal changes in regulation since 2002 which has created more confusion and less transparency. In 2002, USDA approved poultry operations that have outdoor access through porches which led to a proliferation of these operations, which required a limited land base. After a futile attempt to publish a guidance document on outdoor access for poultry in 2010, NOP decided to move to rulemaking as the only way to overthrow their past mistakes and create a level playing field for all poultry operations.

Areas of concern for Organic Dairies

The first section of the Proposed Rule deals with new definitions which are mostly directed at poultry and swine. Below are the two that need slight changes to provide clarity in interpretation for ruminants:

205.2 Indoors. The flat space or platform area which is under a solid roof. On each level the animals have access to food and water and can be confined if necessary. Indoor space for avian species includes, but is not limited to:

This description for housing is directed at poultry and possibly swine as the design for the indoors for other livestock, especially ruminants would involve sloping floors and would not be on several levels. For clarity we will be suggesting that this is directed at poultry and swine by making the change to Avian and Swine Indoors as the title of the definition.

205.2 Outdoors. Any area in the open air with at least 50 percent soil, outside a building or shelter where there are no solid walls or solid roof attached to the indoor living space structure. Fencing or netting that does not block sunlight or rain may be used as necessary.

Our concern here is with the requirement to have at least 50 percent soil mix which would become un-manageable in inclement weather and would be a permanent risk to soil and water quality. Most of the justification for these new terms is tied to poultry and hogs. We already have good definitions for livestock to have outside access during the non-grazing season and definitions of those areas (7 CFR205.239(a)(1)). NOP have recognized that different species need different conditions, as later in the Proposed Rule the NOP has identified species-specific requirements for housing and outdoor access.

Mammalian Living Conditions

With this Rule, the NOP has recognized the difference between poultry and other livestock by separating Livestock Living Condition into Mammalian and Avian. To improve upon the current standards, this proposed rule would set separate standards for mammalian and avian livestock living conditions to better reflect the needs and behaviors of the different species, as well as related consumer expectations. The proposed mammalian livestock standards would cover both ruminants and swine.

205.239(a)(1) This section deals very explicitly with year-round access to the outside. One of the changes that NOP is proposing is to measure the ability of livestock to feed without competition on an outside feeding pad or feedlot in the non-grazing season by assessing their ability to maintain good body condition. NOP explains that they will develop guidance to judge body condition but making those assessments is difficult, especially with the many different breeds and cross breeds that are part of organic dairy because they thrive on pasture. Appropriate body condition would be better wording than good but we will challenge the practicality of training all livestock inspectors in body condition scoring, especially as the requirements for maintaining animals in a healthy condition are dealt with elsewhere in the regulations.

The changes proposed in 205.239(a)(3), below, will confuse the situation rather than clarify it. “Kept clean” is a very subjective assessment and will vary depending on time of year and type of housing. As an example, will we need to supply bedding in the pasture to keep livestock clean as they tend to have loose manure while on new pasture? In our opinion the original wording is sufficient plus 205.239(a)(4)(iv) gives added clarity about the use of bedding.

Proposed Rule_ch1

The changes proposed in 205.239(a)(4)(i), below, do not reflect the natural behavior of ruminant livestock because their preference is to sit rather than lie fully stretched out. In some cases, to see an animal fully stretched out would be a sign of distress. To meet these conditions would mean the end of tie stalls and free stall barns which are commonly used across the world. We will be proposing that the NOP take the recommendation of the NOSB and leave 205.239(a)(4)(i) as it is, and introduce a new section under 205.239(a)(13 or 14) that deals with the requirements for dairy cattle housing.

Proposed Rule_ch21

The sections 205.239(a)(6) -205.239(a)(12) are listed below:

Proposed Rule_ch3

We question using “until weaning” in 205.239(a)(7)(i) and will suggest wording related to a period of time, for example “Up to 6 months of age.”

205.239(a)(7)(ii) is too prescriptive, unnecessary and could contradict 205.239(a)(7)(iii).

Proposed Rule_ch4

205.239(a)(11) could be interpreted to mean tie stalls or free stalls and we propose language that will make it more explicitly for swine and also add another provision specifically for dairy cattle housing.

Proposed Rule_ch5

205.239(b)(7) – There may be many reasons to temporarily confine animals before and after breeding and we need wording that more accurately allows that to happen.

Livestock Health Care Practice Standard

This proposed rule attempts to provide specificity on livestock health care practices, such as which physical alteration procedures are prohibited or restricted for use on organic livestock.
This section has over prescriptive requirements for a feed ration, monitoring of livestock health, and excessive paperwork requirements for producers who will need added details about parasite management, lameness, sick and injured animals in their Organic System Plan.
NOP has also introduced the requirement for all producers to be trained in scoring body condition (205.238(a)(2)) and the concept of a Competent Person for physical alteration: 205.238(a)(5). The NOP definition for this person is: “Competency may be demonstrated by training or experience of the person performing the alterations or may be demonstrated by the training or experience of the person training the person performing the alterations.” This competency will be verified by the certifier!

205.238(e)(1) requires a Written Plan for Euthanasia but no parameters about what the plan must contain, how detailed it should be, and whether it has to be approved by a vet or some qualified person experienced in animal welfare. With large animals, euthanasia is not easy, especially when the animal is non-ambulatory. NOP needs to develop templates that organic livestock producers can use to satisfy this requirement about euthanizing and disposing of sick or injured animals.

205.238(e)(3) Examination of death: insensibility test approved by Temple Grandin should be the guiding principle for mammals.

Proposed Rule_ch6

Proposed Rule_ch71

Proposed Rule_ch8

Transportation and Slaughter

In December 2011, the NOSB passed a recommendation to add standards for transportation of livestock to slaughter facilities and the slaughter process. In response to this recommendation, AMS is proposing regulations, in a new § 205.242 for Transportation and Slaughter. This new proposed section would require producers and handlers of livestock to maintain organic integrity and provide for animal welfare during transportation and clarify the requirements for slaughter of livestock by certified operations.
In the US, most of these provisions are enforced under State and Federal laws. The transportation of livestock is already governed under Federal Twenty-Eight Hour Law (49 USC 80502) and the regulations at 9 CFR 89.1-89.5. USDA licensed slaughterhouses cannot accept non-ambulatory livestock. The larger question is how these regulations will be applied in countries that either have agreements with the NOP or operations certified by NOP accredited certifiers. The NOP rightly asks the question about how that information would be recorded and verified.

Proposed Rule_ch9

* The Federation Of Organic Dairy Producers is an umbrella group for the three regional organic dairy farmer organizations: Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association (MODPA), and Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA). FOOD Farmers represents over 1,200 or two thirds of organic dairy farmers across the country. The organic dairy farmers have many different production methods including seasonal grass based dairies and more traditional production methods that combine pasture, conserved forage and grain.

The FOOD Farmers are developing comments to respond to the NOP to ensure that we have a Final Rule that we can live with. We hold regular conference calls and welcome anyone who wants to join the discussion. Until we hear about any extension we are under a tight time limitation to get our comments into the NOP by June 13th 2016 so please send us your comments as soon as possible.

Comments can be sent to Ed Maltby at, or faxed to 1-866-554-9483 or mailed to NODPA, 30 Keets Road, Deerfield, MA 01342.