Organic Farmers Association members are working to protect the health of their dairy cows and the integrity of the organic label.

Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke believes that keeping calves with their mothers is the most humane and healthy way to start them off. He has also determined that weaning them after three to four months is the best practice. Around that age, he acknowledges with a chuckle, “they start turning into juvenile delinquents. They won’t come when their moms call. They run around in gangs. And they get high on grass.”

Thicke and his wife, Susan Noll Thicke, own Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa, where they milk 90 Jerseys. The whole herd is out year-round—through most of the winter, even when temperatures can hit 0°F in southern Iowa. The cows don’t mind, Thicke says. He doesn’t push the milk production and continues to rotate the animals through paddocks by moving their hay and baleage. “They get a small amount of grain but eat mostly grass,” he says. “They’re in their natural environment, eating their natural diet. We haven’t had a vet on the farm in three years.”

From its on-farm processing facilities, Radiance produces milk (whole, 2 percent, and skim), whipping cream, yogurt, and cheese. All of the items are sold within a 5-mile radius of the farm through three grocery stores and about 20 restaurants in Fairfield.

Demand for certified organic dairy products is soaring everywhere: In the United States, organic milk sales reached $1.4 billion in 2016. Consumers are paying a significant premium for organic milk (double the cost of conventional milk in many markets) based in large part on the perception that it comes from family-run farms like Radiance. But the fast growth of the organic milk market is now threatening the integrity of the “USDA organic” seal, the public’s trust in it, and the future of organic dairy farms that meet the standards consumers expect.

Industrializing Organic

To supply the rapidly expanding marketplace for organic milk, a few operations have been scaling up. Six to eight U.S. dairies now manage herds of 10,000 to 15,000 cows, explains Mark McAfee, owner and operator of Organic Pastures dairy farm in Fresno, California, and a member of the Organic Farmers Association Policy Committee. “These are familiar brands sold in supermarkets around the country,” he says, “and they have been consistently failing to meet the organic standards.”

In 2017, the Washington Post published an investigative report that presented evidence of violations of grazing rules and other regulations by several certified organic operations. For years, industry watchdog groups had been calling out some of these same brands for violating the standards. “For them to meet the required 120 days on pasture a year, they’d need thousands of acres for grazing, and they don’t have it,” McAfee says.

After the newspaper report, the USDA opened an investigation into Aurora Organic Dairy, one of the operations named in the article. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Aurora supplies milk for the house brands of Walmart, Costco, and other major retailers. After several months of inquiry, Betsy Rakola, the director of compliance and enforcement for the National Organic Program at the USDA, wrote a letter to Aurora management (according to a follow-up story in the Washington Post) stating that “we determined that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and NOP policies. Therefore, the case is hereby closed.”

Undermining consumer trust in the organic label isn’t the only problem caused by lax enforcement of standards, McAfee observes. “The organic dairy industry is in a race to the bottom in pricing because the marketplace is flooded with too much product,” McAfee says. “The pasture requirement is necessary to keep the supply in balance by limiting how much can be produced. That would hold the price where organic producers who are complying with the standards can earn a living.” Instead, the low prices have forced about 30 percent of certified organic dairies in California to shut down in the last two years, McAfee says.

Organic Farmers Association and other groups have been lobbying the USDA’s National Organic Program for stronger enforcement of its Access to Pasture Rule and for improvements in the standards. So far, the USDA has not taken substantive action on these issues.

Daily Habits

While industrial-scale dairies are increasing their share of the market, Organic Farmers Association members like Thicke in Iowa, the Arnolds of Central New York State’s Twin Oaks Dairy, and the McAfee family continue to demonstrate that maintaining high organic standards works for people and livestock. What consumers expect of organic production isn’t always happening, laments Aaron McAfee, Mark’s son. “We know what real organic practices are. We do them every day.”

On the McAfees’ 400-acre Central Valley farm, the climate allows for year-round intensive rotational grazing of their mixed-breed herd. Blaine McAfee (Mark’s wife) focuses on herd health with emphasis on preventive treatments. The cows go through copper sulfate footbaths twice a day (to inhibit fungal diseases) and are watched closely for locomotion issues, since walking well is critical for cows to thrive on pasture.

The farmers use about one-quarter of the acreage to raise some supplemental feed for dry cows and heifers. For the 570 milking cows, they must purchase nutritionally richer feed produced in cooler areas like northern Nevada and Oregon.

The regenerative cycle is very important at Organic Pastures. Milk that retail customers return and by-products generated from the dairy’s processing plant are spread on the fields, where they add nutrients and probiotic bacteria to the soil. Last year, the family integrated sheep into their pasture rotation. The flock grazes down the plants the cows leave behind—a “natural weed-killer,” in the words of Mark McAfee. The sheep replaced diesel-powered mowers, reducing the farm’s use of fossil fuels.

During the heat of summer, the staff at Organic Pastures erects temporary shade cloth structures to protect livestock. Aaron shares that organic-certification inspectors have occasionally observed the absence of wet-weather shelter, “but we only get about 12 inches of rain a year,” he notes. The McAfees firmly believe that the cows do not suffer during brief periods of inclement weather.

Since Organic Pastures markets its own branded products and is also located in a well-traveled region, the farm sees a lot of visitors. “We probably do at least one tour a day,” Aaron says. It’s a constant reminder that “you’re accountable to more than the USDA. We have to go above and beyond. It’s what our consumers expect.”

Scientific View

Pasturing cows is common sense, according to Brad Heins, Ph.D., associate professor of animal science at the University of Minnesota. He backs up that principle with research demonstrating that organic dairy livestock have lower rates of mastitis and respiratory disease. “Animals are just healthier when they have access to pasture,” he says. “They’re getting exercise and fresh air while eating grass.” Manure management, he points out, is handled naturally by the cows spreading their own as they graze. On top of all of that, Heins notes, organic livestock are “definitely less stressed because they’re not being pushed to produce as large an amount of milk” as the cows on conventional farms typically are.

Heins’s research supports Thicke’s practice of outwintering his herd despite the farm’s location in a cold northern climate. Heins works predominantly with organic dairies in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In a report published in early 2019 in the Journal of Dairy Science, Heins and coauthors compared the effects of raising organic dairy cattle in the Upper Midwest in outdoor versus indoor housing systems. The study concluded that outdoor housing can reduce expenses “without sacrificing [milk] production and animal health and well-being.”

Heins has observed an increase in organic farms milking just once daily (rather than twice) and yielding the same output with less labor and no harm to livestock. He also expects that more organic farmers will start using robotic milkers, although he notes that they require a grazing rotation planned to pull cows through the robot facility on the way to new pasture. In addition to helping with labor, robotic milking benefits animal welfare, Heins believes. “The animal is free to do what she wants and gets milked when she wants,” he says, adding that robots also have more consistent sanitation practices than humans do.

Natural Health Care

Kathie Arnold grew up on a dairy farm not far from where she and her son, Kirk, now co-own Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, New York. Her family farmed conventionally, but she started thinking there had to be a better way. “Ever since I read Silent Spring in high school,” Kathie says, “I had a bent toward organic farming.” Although the farm she first owned with her late husband and his brother was not certified until 1998, the Arnolds had transitioned several years earlier to intensive rotational grazing and eliminated antibiotic treatment for mastitis.

In a talk at the 2016 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) Winter Conference, Kathie reflected back on her family’s journey to becoming organic. Although they had been pasturing the herd in the early 1990s, she recalled, “we decided to keep our fresh cows and highest-producing cows off pasture so we could feed them better and thus increase production. We did that for two years and did make more milk, but we also had many more cow health issues and a much bigger feed bill.” The Arnolds put the entire milking herd back on pasture and increased both acreage and the duration of their grazing season.

“That first intensive grazing season was stressful,” Kathie admitted in her conference talk. “We watched milk production decline as we attempted to learn the art of intensive grazing management, but we also saw our feed bill drop more than the production loss and found cow health to be greatly improved. We were hooked on grazing as the way we wanted to farm.”

Today, with 750 acres of owned and rented pasture and cropland, mother and son now raise almost all the forage they need for their 300 Holstein cows during the nongrazing months. In 2016, they invested in a new barn for the 130-cow milking herd that is complete with water beds, mechanical backscratchers, and a long alley so the animals can all eat at the same time. Automated curtains, ventilation chimneys, and circulating fans help with temperature control and air circulation, reducing the risk of problems that often occur in stagnant conditions.

The Arnolds raise their calves in small-group pens, finding they do better with companionship, and the farmers only occasionally need to employ weaner rings. “After they drink, they kick up their heels and run around together,” Kathie says happily. Like Thicke in Iowa, the Arnolds breed to polled bulls so they do not need to dehorn young animals.

Over the years, the family has developed health maintenance practices such as dosing many fresh cows with a calcium bolus to prevent milk fever, and fortifying calf milk with vitamins, garlic, and herbs to aid digestion and build immunity. During the summer, they sprinkle wasp eggs around calf bedding, deploying natural insect predators to keep flies down.

The farm belongs to a regional co-op that produces store-brand organic milk and yogurt for the Wegmans supermarket chain, among other customers. Kathie believes that most organic dairy farmers are committed to the same high standards to which she has devoted decades. But, she cautions, “when negative press shows that some producers aren’t meeting consumer expectations, it impacts the whole organic movement.”

U.S. Organic Dairy Stats for 2016

  • 2.56 billion pounds of organic dairy products sold
  • 2,500 farms producing organic milk
  • 280,000 certified organic cows producing milk
  • $1.4 billion sales of organic milk

Origin Matters

Where and how dairy heifers are raised is a critical component of the standards for certified organic milk that is inconsistently interpreted and enforced by inspectors and the USDA.

Industrial-scale operations send calves to be raised conventionally and then bring them back to produce organic milk, says Mark McAfee, a member of the Organic Farmers Association Policy Committee. “That means, for instance, they’re paying one-third of the typical feed cost for animals raised on organic farms.”

Organic Farmers Association recommends that the NOP act immediately by issuing guidance based on the language in the Origin of Livestock Proposed Rule published in 2015. The guidance should clearly state that the provision for transitioning conventional cows to organic in one year is a onetime allowance and that continuous transitioning of conventional livestock is prohibited.


Defending Integrity

Organic Farmers Association is taking action for all certified organic dairy farmers by advocating for stronger standards and tighter enforcement of them. “We want the USDA to take effective actions to ensure that organic dairy products meet consistent standards for all producers—large and small, domestic and foreign,” says Kate Mendenhall, OFA director. “We believe that risk assessment should be a priority when conducting inspections and accreditation.”

Organic Farmers Association has asked the National Organic Program board to strengthen its enforcement of the Access to Pasture Rule by instructing certifying agents to identify high-risk dairy operations as those that have more than 1,000 milking and dry cows and/or regularly meet only the minimum requirement of 30 percent dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture over the course of the grazing season.

These specific policy proposals from OFA will ensure all certified organic dairy products meet consumers’ expectations.

  • Requirement for organic certification file-review staff and inspectors to have documented training and experience in livestock nutrition and grazing.
  • Requirement for a calculation matrix to confirm that farms meet the grazing requirement. Documentation will include average animal weight, individual and verifiable unique identification of each animal, milk production, daily DMI (from pasture and nonpasture sources), acres of pasture, forage yield of pasture, and maximum distances cows walk to pasture.
  • Confirmation that DMI is calculated as an average over the entire grazing season for each type and class of animal and that milking and dry cows are not being mixed in those calculations.
  • Two inspections during the grazing season, one announced and one unannounced.

You can help protect the organic label’s integrity for dairy products by supporting Organic Farmers Association.

This article originally ran in the spring 2019 issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of the Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually. Join today.

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