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Transition to organic: What it takes, why it might be worth it

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 10 June 2016

“The organic industry continues to grow,” said Lisa Engelbert, dairy farmer and NOFA-NY certified organic dairy team leader. “There is still a shortage of organic milk nationwide.”

Organic milk markets are stable, without the pricing fluctuation on the conventional market, making it “so much easier for budgeting and planning purposes,” she added, addressing farmers at the NOFA-NY Organic Dairy and Field Crop Conference last March.

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But don’t use those reasons as the primary ones for going organic. Certification requires a change in practices, not a simple substitution of conventional inputs for certified-organic ones. Dairying organically might mean having to change your basic philosophy of farming.

Requirements

Organic certification is a third-party verified process, and the National Organic Program (NOP) does investigate complaints, Engelbert said. Organic certification requires an annual inspection, and fees and paperwork are also submitted annually. Random inspections do occur. Keeping accurate records of everything on the dairy is required, as the ability to trace everything – from seed to sale – is mandatory.

Very specific management practices and adhering to allowed input use – when justified – is required. For dairy farmers, both the land and the herd become certified organic. Promoting soil health, as well as animal health and welfare, is paramount.

The “big three” issues for organic dairy farming are: no genetically modified organisms, no ionizing radiation and no biosolids use, Engelbert said. Winter outdoor access and summer grazing practices are emphasized under organic management.

All ruminants have to have pasture access for a minimum 120-day grazing season, and they have to consume a minimum of 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season. Year-round outdoor access is required daily for all animals unless certain circumstances temporarily prevent this.

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Land and herd transition

Land must be free of any prohibited substances for at least three years. This is inclusive of seeds, fertilizers, fumigants, pesticides and any other inputs. Newly enrolled land cannot have had any treated lumber installed in the past three years.

Buffers from non-organic land must be established and maintained. Crops must be rotated, and building soil fertility and structure must be a focus of management practices.

“The whole goal is to be maintaining and growing soil fertility,” Engelbert said. “Pasture is a perennial crop,” and National Organic Program pasture standards require it to be managed to optimize soil health.

Not all the land on the farm has to be transitioned at once. Crops, however, cannot be retroactively certified. There are some parameters in place to ease the transition for dairy farmers, including the use of land that is in its third year of transition (T3).

Land should be either certified, or in its third transition year, when the herd transition begins.

Transitioning the dairy herd requires one full year under 100 percent certified-organic feed, pasture and management practices. The day transition starts is the day that only certified grain is fed.

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Transitioning animals can be pastured on certified-organic land or T3 land. Crops taken from T3 land can also be fed during the one-year herd transition period. After the one-year herd transition, any feed remaining from the T3 land has to be removed and can no longer be used.

“It’s really important to have a good pasture plan in place when you start your transition,” Engelbert said.

The entire herd doesn’t have to transition at once. Groups of heifers can be transitioned independently. But once officially started, no new animals can be added to the herd or group.

“You just need to make sure you watch your breeding dates,” Engelbert said. “You don’t want them to be producing milk before the end of the one-year transition.”

If they do, the milk will have to be sold on the conventional market.

Three months after transition begins, any calves born into the group are considered certified organic. Calves must be fed organic whole milk. Use of milk replacer is prohibited.

“Calves do great on whole milk anyway. That’s kind of what nature intended,” she said.

Farmers also have the option of purchasing animals from certified-organic herds. There is no transition period required for animals from another certified-organic herd. Breeding bulls do not have to be certified organic, and A.I. is allowed.

Organic animal care

Preventing health issues is the focus of organic farming practices. Any health care products used during transition must be approved under NOP standards. However, sick animals must be treated, and if other methods fail, antibiotic use is justified to prevent suffering.

Antibiotics, or other prohibited substance use, will mean that the animal is removed from the organic herd and can never again be certified organic. Any milk from a treated cow cannot be used to feed calves, either.

Vaccination is allowed, but vaccines cannot contain GMO components. Hormones, animal byproducts, synthetic amino acids and most synthetic medications are prohibited. Mineral oil cannot be given internally.

Minerals and salts must come from certified sources. Dehorning must occur humanely with an approved pain preventative and at a very young age. Tail docking is not allowed, but herds with previously docked animals are eligible to transition.

“Total confinement is prohibited,” Engelbert said.

A common example of dairy animal housing during the non-grazing season is the use of a tiestall barn, Engelbert said. When the stalls are being cleaned, the animals can be put outdoors for one or two hours each day.

Animals are required to have daily access to sun and fresh air, and have the ability to express their natural behaviors whether it is grazing season or not.

Bedding has to be clean, dry and cannot contain synthetic additives or prohibited ingredients. Agricultural products, such as straw, have to be certified organic.

Any barnyard or area under a roof, even if it is open to the outdoors on all sides, is not considered to be outdoor access. The entire herd does not have to be outside at the same time and can be divided to make outdoor access feasible.

“It sounds onerous. It’s really not,” Engelbert said of organic certification and requirements.

If managing your herd and land in conjunction with certified-organic standards makes sense, many milk companies have programs to offset the cost of organic transition. Often this is a premium of $2 to $3 per hundredweight for the full year of herd transition.

“Make sure you have a milk market before you start the transition,” Engelbert advised. And for those who want to take dairying even further, “100 percent grass-fed” organic-certified milk is available too.  PD

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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