NOFA-VT & VOF Urge Strong Action on Origin of Livestock for Organic Dairy

In October, the USDA reopened its comment period regarding the Origin of Livestock rule for organic dairy animals, originally proposed in 2015. If implemented, the rule will close a loophole currently allowing some organic dairy producers to continuously transition animals from conventional to organic production, rather than transitioning animals using a one-time, whole herd transition as intended by the organic regulations. This loophole puts producers truly meeting the intent of the regulations at a substantial economic disadvantage and damages the integrity of the organic label. 

NOFA-VT and VOF strongly support the origin of livestock rule. On December 2, we submitted the comments below, urging USDA to implement the rule without delay. 

Questions? Email Maddie Kempner

December 2, 2019

Paul Lewis
Standards Division, National Organic Program
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268a

Public Comment
National Organic Program: Origin of Livestock
Docket: AMS-NOP-11-0009
Madison Kempner, Policy Advisor, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Nicole Dehne, Certification Director, Vermont Organic Farmers LLC

Vermont Organic Farmers LLC (VOF) is a USDA accredited certifier, owned by NOFA-VT, representing 775 certified organic farmers and processors. VOF has been certifying producers since 1985 and has been accredited by the USDA since 2002. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) is one of the oldest organic farming organizations in the country with over 1,100 members. NOFA-VT promotes organic practices to build an economically viable, ecologically sound and socially just Vermont agricultural system that benefit all living things. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the NOP’s rule regarding the origin of organic dairy livestock.

The success of the organic label depends on consumer trust, which in turn relies on uniform interpretation of the organic regulations across all USDA accredited certifiers. Since the Origin of Livestock (OOL) rule was proposed in 2015 but not implemented, there has been a difference of interpretation among accredited certifiers regarding the origin of livestock regulations, leaving a loophole that has created an unfair playing field for organic dairy farmers.

The rule in question, 205.236(a)(2)(iii) states: “Once an entire, distinct herd has been converted to organic production, all animals shall be under organic management from the last third of gestation.”

VOF interprets the regulation above to mean that the transition of a conventional dairy herd to organic production must be a one-time event, and that afterward, animals brought on to the operation must be raised organically from the last third of their gestation. This is consistent with the preamble of the December 21, 2000 National Organic Program Final Rule, which states, “After the dairy operation has been certified, animals brought on to the operation must be organically raised from the last third of gestation. ... Finally, the conversion provision cannot be used routinely to bring non-organically raised animals into an organic operation. It is a one-time opportunity for producers working with a certifying agent to implement a conversion strategy for an established, discrete dairy herd in conjunction with the land resources that sustain it.”

USDA’s failure to implement the Origin of Livestock (OOL) rule has caused significant economic harm to dairy producers meeting the intent of the regulations.

Producers who are allowed to continually transition dairy calves into their operations do so by raising these animals conventionally for one year, thereby giving them a significant cost advantage over producers who raise their young stock organically. This loophole creates an unfair competitive advantage, is contrary to the intention of the regulation, and out of line with consumer expectations. 

We spoke to three certified organic dairy farmers in Vermont and asked them to calculate the cost of raising a calf organically for one year and to estimate the difference in cost if they were to have raised that calf conventionally during the same period.

  • The first farm milks 200 Holsteins and uses nurse cows. They estimate it costs them $2,800 to raise a heifer organically to calving. They estimated that it would cost about $1,500 to raise the same heifer conventionally; a difference of $1,300 per animal.
  • The second farm milks 70 Jerseys and bottle feed the best milk (from cows with highest protein and fat). They estimate it costs them $3,000 to raise an organic calf to calving. Conventionally, it would have cost them around $2,200; a difference of $800 per animal.
  • The third farm is a 30 head Jersey cross herd who bottle-feeds and estimates that it costs them around $2,000 to raise a calf to calving. Conventionally, it would have cost them around $1,200; a difference of $800 per animal.

These numbers clearly demonstrate the economic disadvantage faced by organic producers meeting the intent of the regulations, and the urgent need to level the playing field by finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.

Furthermore, by allowing some producers to continuously and cheaply expand their herd sizes, this loophole has contributed to the oversupply of organic milk and the downturn in pay price, causing economic harm to all organic producers.

The rule must clearly state that the provision for transitioning conventional cows to organic is a one-time allowance, and continuous transition of conventional livestock is not permitted.

We support the inclusion of the following provisions to ensure a strong and consistently interpreted standard regarding the origin of livestock:

  • Animals must be raised organically from the last third of gestation. If transitioning a whole herd to organic, which is allowed only once, animals must be raised organically for one year prior to milk being sold, labeled, or represented as organic.
  • The rule must clarify that cycling of animals in and out of organic production is prohibited.
  • If organic management of the dairy animal, starting at the last third of gestation or at any other time it has been organic, is interrupted, the animal cannot be returned to organic certification.
  • Transitioned animals must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organic slaughter stock or organic bovine dairy animals.

Clarifying these requirements would ensure that all US-based and international certifiers are using the same standards, and would stop continual transition of non-organic dairy heifers, thereby opening the market for certified organic replacement animals. With a historically low organic pay price, opening the market for organic replacements animals would create an important additional revenue opportunity for producers.

Organic producers rely on strong, meaningful, and consistent standards to maintain consumer trust.

The continued success of the organic seal is contingent upon consumers’ perception of organic as a label with integrity, backed by strong and consistent standards. Loopholes created by inconsistencies in interpretation, as in the case of the origin of livestock, diminish consumer trust in the label and threaten producers’ ability to succeed in the organic market.

NOFA-VT and VOF strongly support the Origin of Livestock rule. We urge USDA to reject any attempts to weaken or dilute the rule as written, and to implement a final rule without delay.