Non-enforcement of pasture rules opens the door to industrial organic dairies

Reprinted by permission from the August 2004 issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, the grass farming publication of North America. For a free sample issue, call 1-800-748-9808 or write SGF, P. O. Box 2300-M, Ridgeland, MS 39158-2300.

Debating big organics

Aurora Dairy's entry into the organic milk market last month has set off another round in the ongoing debate over the mainstreaming of organics. In this issue we bring you two excerpts from that discussion: a reprint from the current issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer, sounding the concerns of at least one smaller organic dairy farmer; and our own overview of the current situation, including assurances from Aurora senior vice president Clark Driftmier that all Aurora Organic cows will have access to pasture and that the dairy will raise all its own replacement heifers.

What do you think? Does the certification of Aurora Organic's dairy and bottling facilities represent a bright new dawn for the U.S. organic dairy sector, bringing organic milk to millions of regular American consumers nationwide and prompting the conversion of thousands of acres of farmland to organic production? Or does it herald a tough new era for small, family-owned organic dairies, in which the premium for organic milk will erode and the difference between organic and conventional foods will become less meaningful? Let us know your views. Click here to send a note to the editor.–

WINDSOR, Colorado, posted August 17, 2004: The decision of the USDA to not enforce the "access to pasture" rules of the National Organic Program has encouraged at least one industrial dairy in Colorado to start converting to Certified Organic.

The USDA has said they cannot enforce the "access to pasture" rule because the word pasture was not defined in the enabling legislation.

Due to such lack of specificity, the current NOP is riddled with loopholes and unenforceable rules and guidelines.

The access to pasture rule was originally included to provide a fire wall against industrial dairies and feedlots and appeared to do this at first.

For example, Horizon Organic Dairy had a confinement organic dairy in Colorado but sold it when the new pasture rules were put into the National Organic Standards.

The former Horizon 3200-cow confinement dairy is now owned by Aurora Dairy Corporation and is in the process of being re-certified as organic despite its lack of pasture access.

Meg Cattell, who grazes 400 organic dairy cows near the Aurora dairy, said because of these large corporate expansions the future outlook for small organic dairies such as hers was uncertain.

"I figure we are about two years from a complete melt-down of organic dairy prices. That's about how long it will take for the current corporate conversions to come online."

Prior to the Aurora conversion, Cattell's Windsor Dairy was the only Certified Organic Dairy in Colorado.

According to Cattell, Organic Valley Co-op in Wisconsin is the only national buyer of organic milk still enforcing the "access to pasture" rules.

"The lack of enforcement of the pasture rule hurts everyone who is trying to do it for real. We are getting farther and farther from the vision of organic being the ultimate refuge for small farms and are becoming more corporate by the day."

She expects more large confinement dairies to convert to Certified Organic to take advantage of the steady, high milk prices currently being paid for organic milk.

For example, Aurora also owns a 3000-cow confinement dairy in Texas that she has heard will also be converted to organic.

The two Aurora conversions alone will add 10% to the nation's supply of Certified Organic milk.

She said Aurora plans an on-farm bottling plant which will private-label organic milk for supermarket chains.

Cattell said she is currently guaranteed $20 to $21 cwt for her milk by Horizon Organic until her contract ends in late summer. This compares to $18 cwt for conventional milk in her area (in late June).

Horizon Organic is now owned by the dairy conglomerate Dean Foods.

However, she said her premium milk price is being offset by skyrocketing organic grain, hay and replacement heifer prices as Aurora buys its way into the market.

She said Certified Organic corn is now $440 a ton. Certified Organic soybean meal is $700 a ton and Certified Organic replacements are $2700 a head.

"[The high grain costs] are telling me it pays to not feed grain," she said.

As a former dairy researcher, she said she had run various ration formulations and found that the only two that worked financially were 100% grass or a 100% total mixed ration.

She also believes many of the dairy cow health problems are created by the huge omega 6/omega 3 imbalance due to feeding grain and hay rather than pasture. She said feeding dairy replacements large amounts of grain after weaning predisposed them to leg and foot problems as adults.

"I figure we are about two years from a complete melt-down of organic dairy prices. That's about how long it will take for the current corporate conversions to come online." — Meg Cattell, organic farmer

However despite her personal convictions, she is trapped into grain feeding because of her high-production dairy genetics. As a result, she must continue to feed 35% of her cows' diet as grain even though this is not economic.

With 1000 acres of irrigated pasture available, she said she had originally planned to significantly increase her herd numbers but the high cost of replacements had now stymied that plan.

"My alternate plan is to go exactly the opposite way. I could get very small and seasonal, graze the mountain meadows and make and sell Certified Organic, non-pasteurized aged cheese.

I have put a pencil to it and I can actually make more money with 40 cows that way than with 400 cows doing it the way I am doing it today."

While she hasn't made a final decision of which way to go, she hedged her bet this summer by buying a large supply of French Alpine dairy breed semen.

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