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What makes a cow organic

A look at the organic dairy pasture wars

By Samuel Fromartz

The “pasture wars” in the organic dairy sector broke out in the summer of 2007, when Aurora Organic Dairy agreed to amend its farming practices in a deal with the Department of Agriculture.

The deal came after years of complaints about the nation’s largest private-label organic dairy company. It followed a “Notice of Proposed Revocation” issued April 16 by the USDA’s National Organic Program which alleged 14 “willful violations” of organic regulations by the Boulder, Colorado-based company.

In the less strongly worded agreement, the NOP said it found “inconsistencies” between the company’s Organic System Plan and regulations. Significantly, the USDA affirmed the company’s organic certificates, despite the “willful violations” it earlier found.

The USDA gave Aurora Organic a year to reform its practices, including ceasing to sell certain milk that it labeled organic. If it failed to do so, the NOP could ban Aurora from the organic market.

Although the agreement seemed like the end of a long-running battle between Aurora and its critics, it may actually mark the beginning. Within weeks, six class action lawsuits were filed against Aurora, claiming that consumers had been defrauded by buying milk that was not organic. Aurora responded by saying the suits were baseless.

What is this battle about? It has been part of a long-running fight over the precise way to define, practice and regulate organic dairy farming in the United States. The organic dairy business is the second-largest sector of the U.S. organic industry after produce, with $2.1 billion in sales and growing at a rate of 24 percent annually, according to a 2006 survey by the Organic Trade Association.

Although the company was cited for many lapses, one main issue stood out: its admitted practice of keeping thousands of cows on feedlots, and limiting grazing on organic pasture. The company’s stated aim was to lower the price of organic milk to make it more widely available to consumers. In doing so, Aurora essentially adapted the model of conventional dairy production to organic farming.

This approach seeks to maximize milk production by relying on calorie-dense feed rations rather than fresh grass, and keeping animals in close proximity to the milking plant. At its first facility in Platteville, Colorado, which had 5,200 animals at one point, it could simply not graze cows and also milk them at the same time. The distance between sufficient pasture and the milking facility would have been too great for thousands of animals to traverse. In any case, such pasture acreage did not exist at the facility.

Under the agreement, Aurora said it would cut the size of its herd in Platteville (from a reduced 2,200 cows to 1,250) and increase pasture to 400 acres. It also agreed to graze all its lactating cows under prescribed grazing rates of up to five cows per acre – a figure many dairy farmers thought was far too high. Finally, it agreed to stop using improperly transitioned animals on its farms and to rely instead on cows reared organically from the last-third of gestation.


A historical perspective

Aurora, which sells store-labeled milk to supermarket and discount chains such as Wal-Mart, was not alone in this farming model. In fact, the organic concentrated feeding operation (CAFO) is nearly as old as the organic dairy industry in the United States. Aurora’s founders had participated in Horizon Organic, founded in 1991. By 1994, seeking to increase its supply of organic milk, Horizon acquired and renovated a former conventional CAFO in arid Idaho that would house more than 4,000 organic cows, with limited pasture.

The only major supply of organic milk at that time was from Wisconsin (the CROPP cooperative, which now sells under the Organic Valley label). Horizon knew it could expand to consumer markets such as Los Angeles if it could secure a larger source of organic milk closer to the West Coast.

This farm was immediately controversial in organic circles, but in the early 1990s the organic dairy industry was just taking off. At the time, organic certification was overseen by a patchwork of organizations, each of which had slightly different requirements.
The founders of Horizon felt their model was organic. The cows were fed organic feed rations grown by organic farmers on thousands of organic acres. Horizon officials argued in debates beginning as early as 1993 that no organic dairy farm should be held to a strict national pasture standard, for that ignored regional variation in grazing rates, pasture quality and farming practices.

Other organic farmers took the opposing view, arguing that pasture was integral to the “natural behavior” of ruminants and should be mandated and specified in the regulations. Many of these farmers were from the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where pasture is plentiful.

Despite the fierce debate on the issue and a clear statement in the regulations that ruminants should be out on pasture, a bright-line measure of appropriate grazing was left undefined. As section 205.239 of the regulations state:

“(a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including:
(2) Access to pasture for ruminants;”

As I wrote in my book Organic Inc.:
But what constituted “access to pasture” and how long should it last? The rules didn’t spell this out because the number of days a cow can graze differs from seasonal Vermont to arid Colorado. If too rigid, some farms would be knocked out of organic certification. But if they were too loose, the loopholes could be exploited by farms using a minimal-pasture, high-grain, high production model. Balancing restrictions with a recognition of regional and farm variation proved exceedingly tough. The result was vague language requiring “access.”

Would “access” be fulfilled by rotating thousands of cows through a few hundred acres of pasture on arid land? Or would it mean grazing animals regularly, so that the animals received a significant portion of their nutrition from fresh grass during the growing season?

The preamble to NOP organic regulations spelled out the principle for pasturing livestock:

“… livestock producers must manage their land to provide nutritional benefit to grazing animals while maintaining or improving the soil, water, and vegetative resources of the operation. The producer must establish and maintain forage species appropriate for the nutritional requirements of the species using the pasture. (Preamble page 80571).
“A producer must provide livestock with a total feed ration composed of agricultural feed products, including pasture and forage that is organically produced.” (Preamble page 80572).
But in practice, the “access to pasture” language left a great deal of room for interpretation, which is how large-scale organic dairy CAFOs won certification under national organic regulations that took effect in October 2002.

Brewing complaints

The organic Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model was controversial from the start, because it was an oxymoron. Aside from the philosophical issues – were open air feedlots with thousands of cows truly compatible with organic methods? – there were economic issues, too.

Smaller organic dairies that rely on grazing have lower levels of milk production. Fresh grass has a lower energy level than bunk feed and cows also burn off calories walking from the pasture to the milking parlor, dampening production. The upside is that grazing animals on grass is far cheaper than buying organic feed. The animals tend to be healthier because they are outside and exercising, and pasture-based cows tend to have far longer productive lives than confined animals. While the cow’s output declines on grass, so do expenses, making the model viable for many smaller dairy farmers. (Additionally, grass-fed cows have been shown to have nutritionally superior milk to grain-fed animals).

As large-scale competitors came on line, smaller dairy farmers grew concerned. They feared that the CAFO models would undercut the market because the confined animals had more robust yields. They also worried the Organic CAFO would undercut consumer trust, since it was at odds with the image (widely publicized on milk cartons!) of a cow munching on grass.
In addition, public interest groups stepped into the debate. The Cornucopia Institute, the grassroots, farmer-supported NGO, was highly critical of the Organic CAFO model. It named names. It rated milk. It criticized lax certifiers and brought significant attention to the issue. As one example, in October 2006, Business Week magazine published a cover story titled “The Organic Myth.” The cover showed a milk carton with a cow grazing on pasture superimposed over an image of cows crowded into a feedlot.

NOSB takes action

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises the NOP on organic regulations, was acutely aware of the issue and sought to take action to tighten the pasture requirement. As early as June 2000, the NOSB recommended that: the allowance for temporary confinement should be restricted to short-term events such as birthing of newborn or finish feeding for slaughter stock and should specifically exclude lactating dairy animals.

Then, in October 2001, the board passed a recommendation to tackle the vague language of “access to pasture.” It stated:
“Ruminant livestock must have access to graze pasture during the months of the year when pasture can provide edible forage, and the grazed feed must provide a significant portion of the total feed requirements.”

Both these recommendations were sent on to regulators at the NOP, but, like many other recommendations, they languished.
An NOSB meeting held in Washington, D.C., in March 2005 proved a turning point. Dozens of organic dairy farmers from around the nation traveled to the meeting and proceeded, in a public comment period, to ask the NOSB and NOP to take action. Thousands of other supporters had sent written comment proposing a change in the rule. At the conclusion of the meeting, the NOSB passed another recommendation and sent it on to the regulators at the NOP. It proposed that the requirement for “access to pasture for ruminants” be changed to a requirement for “ruminant animals grazing pasture during the growing season.” It had exemptions for birthing, for dairy calves up to six months of age, and for finishing beef animals for no more than 120 days. It also barred organic livestock operations from denying pasture to dairy cows during lactation, which was exactly what Aurora had done.

The NOP, however, threw back this recommendation to the board because it lacked specificity – a bright line that would let organic certifiers know precisely when a producer failed to meet grazing requirements. Organic dairy producers around the country, working with the NOSB, discussed the issue in person and by email, arriving at a figure they felt all producers could meet. The NOSB then passed a recommendation with a specific figure:

“Ruminants shall graze pasture for at least 120 days per year…”

Since that 2005 recommendation, however, farmer groups have gone further, seeking an additional clause in the regulatory language that would add an even brighter line. This would require dairy producers to graze during the entire growing season but not less than 120 days a year. In addition, they proposed requiring animals to receive at least 30 percent of their nutrition from pasture. This would prevent operations from minimizing the nutritional role of pasture in the cow’s diet, even if they met the 120 day hurdle. (Although the NOSB had recognized this issue, the board had only included the 30 percent figure in a non-legally binding “guidance document,” not in regulatory language.)

The main organic dairy farmer coalition, the Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers), has sought the following policy in the regulation itself:

“Organic dairy livestock over six months of age must graze on pasture during the months of the year when pasture can provide edible forage. The grazed feed must provide significant intake, at a minimum an average of 30 percent of the dry matter intake during the growing season, for no less than 120 days per year. This provision must be for all cows, whether dry or lactating.”
The NOP has said the regulation is currently in review, though it is unclear what language it will adopt. It is also unclear when the proposed regulation will be released publicly. The process of establishing a new regulation (publishing a proposed rule, having a public comment period, then publishing a final rule) means that a new pasture regulation is unlikely to be enacted until 2008 and possibly even later.

In the meantime, dairy processors have taken stock of the climate and begun to modify practices. In December 2005, Horizon announced it was spending $10 million to renovate its farm in Idaho and hired a grazing expert to advise the company on pasture. Even before the consent agreement, Aurora was downsizing the Platteville facility and opened a new High Plains dairy with more pasture. (Its actions were obviously insufficient to placate the NOP and Cornucopia has continued to criticize the High Plains operation.)

All the major organic dairy processors have also backed the language for a minimum of 120 days of pasture and 30 percent dry matter intake as internal production protocols. Horizon has said it was meeting the hurdle of 120 days/30 percent on a second company-owned farm in Maryland; it will do so in Idaho, once the renovation of the farm is complete. Aurora has said it is meeting the 120 day hurdle, though has made no firm commitments on reaching the 30 percent figure for nutrition from fresh grass.

Finally, nearly all processors have backed a policy requiring organic dairy calves to be raised organically from the last third of gestation. No longer would an organic dairy farm be allowed to expand its existing herd by acquiring cows that were conventional at birth and then transitioned to organic production over one year. For new cows to enter an organic dairy farm, their mothers must be organic from the last trimester of pregnancy. Aurora has pledged to do this on its Platteville farm, and says it will adopt the policy eventually on all its properties.
Although these pledges show how the market for organic dairying has shifted, it is premature to say the underlying issues have been resolved. Aside from monitoring operations at Aurora and Horizon, watchdogs are looking into other large-scale organic dairies that have come on line.

FOOD Farmers believe, however, that a clear regulation can help guide the market forward. Whether that will happen, however, is up to the USDA.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (Harcourt, 2006). His website is, and he blogs at


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