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Grazing and the Pasture Rule

Contributing Writers: Beth Unger and Dr. Guy Jodarski

Grazing keeps cattle healthy. Ruminants like cattle need a high forage diet to avoid acidosis and the many health problems that follow from heavy grain feeding. Good pasture can provide nearly all the nutrition cows need. The fresh air, sunshine, exercise and high vitamin levels in the feed grazing cattle eat work together as a great tonic for health. Cow health and vitality reach their highest levels during the grazing season.

Dairy farm profitability benefits from grazing. A University of Wisconsin study showed conventional grazing herds had an annual net income per cow ($500) double the amount dairy farmers using conventional confinement methods of production earned ($250). The study was done over a three year period that included high and low milk prices. The graziers consistently earned more per cow even though milk production was lower.

Milk from grazed cows is more nutritious than milk from cows fed stored feeds. The fatty acid profile is improved by grazing. Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratios shift to a higher number (more of the healthy omega-3s) and the conjugated linoleic acid level also increases greatly. CLA's anti-tumor activity has been proven for a wide range of cancer types. Antioxidant vitamin levels are also higher in milk from grazed cows. Maximizing grazing makes our high quality dairy products even more nutritious for consumers.

Grazing is good for the environment. Cows harvesting their own feed and spreading their own manure reduces fuel use. Growing sod and having animals graze it increases the soil's carbon. Good soil fertility supports higher yields and produces better quality forage. Farmers should seek to balance minerals and increase organic matter in pasture soils. The highly nutritious plants grown on fertile soil promote the health of the animals that graze them, which leads to making the best possible animal products for feeding people.

Pasture as a crop has a lot of recordkeeping ramifications, particularly regarding your organic system plan. The OSP must describe the grazing season in your location. The season does not have to be continuous. It could be interrupted for extremely hot weather or inclement weather events, but the season must be at least 120 days in length with at least 30 percent of dry matter intake derived from pasture. Calves must obtain at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake through grazing by 6 months of age. Breeding bulls are exempt from the pasture rule, but may not be sold or represented as organic.

Most certifiers require a complete listing of all feed rations, by class of livestock, produced on the farm and purchased. Information must be kept on feed rations fed to each class of livestock, including pasture, listing changes for seasonal differences. Certifiers will require clients to "provide the method for calculating dry matter demand and dry matter intake."

Livestock living conditions went through a number of changes with the new rule. Previously, the rule read "access to outdoors," but it now reads "year-round access for all animals to the outdoors." Livestock may be denied outdoor access temporarily under certain conditions. Continuous total confinement is prohibited. If livestock is temporarily confined, records must state the reason for and length of confinement.

The new rule also clarified the bedding requirement: "When roughages are used as bedding, they shall have been organically produced…by a certified operation." Therefore, conventional straw is no longer allowed for bedding on a certified organic operation. Also, during non-grazing times of the year, feeding pads or feedlots are allowed, but there must be enough space to allow all livestock to feed simultaneously without excessive crowding or competition for food.

The final rule established conditions for operations raising ruminant slaughter stock (also called "finish feeding" operations) under the NOP regulations. As codified, during the finishing period, ruminant slaughter stock are exempt from the minimum 30 percent Dry Matter Intake (DMI) grazing requirement that other ruminants must meet under the livestock feed requirements of the NOP regulations. However, the rule requires that producers maintain slaughter stock on pasture for each day that their finishing period overlaps with the grazing season. Additionally, the finishing period is limited to one-fifth (1/5) of the animal's total life or 120 days, whichever is shorter. If you plan on finishing your cattle at 14 months of age, the finishing period is approximately 84 days. Certifiers will want to review records to assure compliance, including pasture access, birth dates and finishing period documentation.

The final rule became effective 120 days after publication on June 17, 2010. Operations that are already certified organic had one year to implement the provisions. Operations that obtain organic certification after the effective date are expected to demonstrate full compliance.

 

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