Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0508 PD: Nutritional management of the organic dairy

Robert C. Fry Published on 20 March 2008

Professional publications, consumer magazines, newspapers and Internet sites discussing the merits of organic food for human consumption are abundant.

Consumer access to information about the details surrounding the food they eat combined with ever more frequent news stories about unsafe food has fueled an unprecedented growth in the organic food industry. Since 1997, organic food sales have increased each year by 17 to 21 percent while during the same period total food sales in the U.S. have only climbed 2 to 4 percent.



In 2001 the organic movement in the U.S. was a $7.7 billion business and in 2006 $40 billion, according to research by Organic Monitor. Dairy products are no exception to this with a 17 percent growth in sales of organic dairy products expected through the year 2008. Continuing consumer demand for organic food has milk processors clamoring for a supply of certified organic milk. Discussing the merits of this booming business is not in the scope of this [article]. Instead the focus will be on understanding organic protocols so nutritionists and veterinarians can service the needs of clients who choose to manage their dairy for production of certified organic milk.

Understanding organic dairy production requires some review of the organic food regulations in our country. In 1990, Congress passed The Organic Foods Production Act as part of the Farm Bill. This act authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to appoint a 15-member advisory committee called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The board serves as an advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture regarding the implementation of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and assisting in developing standards for materials used in organic production as listed by the NOP.

The NOP regulations are a 544-page document published in the Federal Register under the direction of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), an arm of the USDA. This national program facilitates domestic and international marketing of fresh and processed food that is organically produced, assuring consumers of consistent and uniform production standards. Additionally, the NOP establishes a national level accreditation that standardizes for the production, handling and labeling of organically produced products. Included in these standards are lists of substances approved for and prohibited from use in organic production.

Dairy herds that desire to produce certified organic milk are a key component of U.S. organic food production and have a significant presence in the NOP rulings. These rulings are very comprehensive but can be summarized by saying synthetics such as antibiotics, hormones and pesticides are prohibited, unless listed as approved. “Natural” products are acceptable, unless listed as prohibited.

Additionally, all feed must be purchased or produced as certified organic. Certified organic feed has to be grown on land free from application of manufactured fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals for the prior three years. This certified organic feed must be fed to the herd, and no prohibited substances may be used in cows producing certified organic milk.


In addition to feed certification, product usage requirements are listed in the Federal Rule pertaining to management systems and living conditions for the herd. This section is vague and has received a great deal of attention in organic dairy production as it pertains to pasture systems. Currently, the standards state a producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including access to outdoors, shelter, shade, fresh air and pasture.

Controversy has surrounded this ruling especially as it pertains to pasture. On August 17th, 2005, the NOSB offered guidance for interpretation of the USDA’s NOP pasture portion of The Organic System Plan. The NOSB’s new recommendation states that ruminant livestock should graze pasture during the months of the year when pasture can provide edible forage. The Organic System Plan should have the goal of providing a significant portion of the total feed requirements as grazed feed but not less than 30 percent dry matter intake (DMI) on an average daily basis during the growing season but not less than 120 days per year.

Third-party certification inspectors make thorough inspections of facilities, cows and records at least annually to determine whether they conform to the NOP standards. Those producers who comply with the regulations are certified by a certifying agency and are allowed to use the USDA organic logo, make product statements and sell their product as certified organic.

Record keeping, accountability and integrity are an integral part of managing a certified organic dairy within NOP guidelines. Additionally, key components of an organic herd’s management include a biosecurity plan, vaccination protocols, pasture plan, sanitation and hygiene routines, reproduction program, treatment and culling strategy and well-balanced nutrition.

It is important to understand that as stated in the NOP it is prohibited to withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail. Livestock treated with a prohibited substance must be clearly identified and shall not be sold, labeled or represented as organically produced.

Feeding the organic dairy cow and nutritional principles associated with her wellness and productivity are no different than conventionally fed herds with one major exception. All feed ingredients must be certified organic or included in the NOP-approved list of additives. The animal nutritional requirements, ration formulation and least-cost optimization are no different than those of conventional diets. Often the only challenge is procurement of organic certified grains and forages at an affordable cost.


The economics of organic dairy production are a fine balancing act between consumer demands creating a premium farm gate milk price, the higher prices for organic feeds, a lower feed efficiency (milk-to-feed ratio) and the added cost of production associated with the transition years. After a producer examines all the factors impacting profitability, he or she will be in the position to choose the correct management system for their operation. If the decision is to become certified organic, then management of an organic dairy operation can be simply stated as knowing the rules in the guidelines of the USDA’s National Organic Program, staying within the boundaries of those rules (even if you don’t agree with them or they don’t make sense to you) and, finally, adhering to all best-known management practices of dairy production management that modern science and technology offers. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from 5th Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference Proceedings

Robert C. Fry
Atlantic Dairy Management Services