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Originally published Friday, February 12, 2010 at 12:20 PM

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USDA organic program sets pasture requirement for livestock

Organic livestock must graze at least 120 days a year, the USDA's organic program says in the first major decision under Washingtonian Miles McEvoy

Seattle Times business reporter

For years, livestock farmers and organic activists have bickered about how much time dairy and beef cattle should spend in pastures to be certified organic.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program finally answered that question, in the first major decision to come out of the program since Miles McEvoy left as head of Washington state's organic-certification program last fall to run its national counterpart.

The new rule, which becomes effective in mid-June, requires that organic dairy and beef cattle — along with other ruminant livestock like sheep and goats — spend at least 120 days a year in pastures.

"It's been a very divisive issue within the organic community, and we're happy to put clarity around this issue," McEvoy said in a telephone news conference.

Organic farms and activists say they like the rule, although the USDA said some farms will have to make changes or give up organic certification.

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan declined to name those producers and said most organic livestock operations already meet the requirements.

"Businesses have had more than a subtle hint that this was the direction we were going in, and hopefully they have made appropriate plans to change and upgrade their operations," she said.

While setting the 120-day minimum, technically the rule says livestock must be pastured during the entire grazing season, a point that activist Mark Kastel calls crucial.

"Almost everywhere in the country that produces organic milk will have grazing seasons way longer than 120 days," said Kastel, senior farm-policy analyst at the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin.

There is no acre-per-cow requirement, but the pasture must have enough grass and other forage that the animals receive at least 30 percent of their dry-matter intake from the pasture during the grazing season.

Kastel says that will keep dairies from filling up cows with "high-production ration" in barns before putting them out to pasture.

He estimates 30 to 40 percent of the country's organic milk comes from big operations like Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, which agreed in 2007 to reduce its herd, add organic pasture and stop labeling some of its milk "organic" after the USDA threatened to revoke its organic certification.

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Aurora, which supplies Costco Wholesale and other major retailers, said Friday it approves of the new rule.

It does not anticipate needing to make operational changes with the 12,000 cows it milks on five farms in Colorado and Texas, although it needs to do the math on the part requiring 30 percent of dry-matter intake to come from pasture.

"We've never looked at it in the way that they're describing it in the final rule," said Sally Keefe, Aurora's vice president of government affairs. "We may have to change some record-keeping procedures and further develop some aspects of our organic-systems plans."

Overall, she said, Aurora is thrilled the rule is out. "Like almost everyone in the organic dairy community, we can hardly say how excited we are this rule is out." Craig Wilson, Costco's assistant vice president of food safety and quality assurance, said the Issaquah-based warehouse chain plans to stick with Aurora.

"They're going to lead the pack on this," Wilson said. "They're very progressive, and they really support the National Organic Program."

The program is requesting public comment on one matter that was not thoroughly addressed by more than 26,000 comments it received on the overall pasture rule. That involves the "finish feeding" period.

Under the new rule, livestock being taken to slaughter — in contrast to dairy cows — are exempt from the 30 percent pasture requirement during the last four months of their lives, known as the "finish feeding" period. They still must have access to pasture.

Public comments on that issue will be taken before April 19. For information, see the National Organic Program's Web site, www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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