Access to pasture for organic dairy

Sound Consumer | January 2006

by Trudy Bialic, editor

Dairy cow

(January 2006) — There’s progress in a controversy over “access to pasture” for organic dairy cows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to issue an “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” at the end of January. It means the USDA will take public comments on recommendations by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to clarify what access to pasture means.

It’s an important step. The USDA has refused for years to allow the NOSB to clarify what access to pasture means under the Organic Foods Production Act.

The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for family-scale farmers, raised concerns about pasture access when it found most of the 4,000 milk cows at the Aurora Organic Dairy in Idaho were confined to dirt-pens, eating organic hay and grain from troughs. Only a few hundred cows were found on small patches of pasture. Cornucopia filed a legal complaint last November asking the USDA to investigate and ensure compliance with organic standards.

The Horizon Organic brand drew high-profile negative publicity for sourcing milk from Aurora, yet private-label, store brands are Aurora’s biggest supporters. Aurora calls itself America’s leading producer for store-brand organic milk. The New York Times reports that Aurora sells under private labels such as Safeway Select, Kirkland at Costco, Archer Farms, at Target, and others.

A spokesperson for Horizon says Horizon stopped purchasing milk from Aurora when the legal complaint was filed and that 75 percent of its milk comes from small, family farms. Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at Cornucopia, alleges that Horizon still is buying “from other factory farms” including one in California.

The demand for organic milk exceeds supply by 10 percent. Cows produce more milk when they eat calorie-dense grain in confinement. But they naturally eat grass, and a heavy grain diet causes a condition called acidosis. There’s evidence that grass-fed dairy also is nutritionally superior.

The proposed rule from NOSB would require all certified-organic cows to graze at least 120 days per year and for lactating cows not to be prevented from pasture grazing. Visit www.cornucopia.org in late January to see when the public comment period begins and to send your comments to the USDA.

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