Advancing Organic Dairy Livestock Rule through spending bill

For well over a decade, organic dairy farmers have been waiting for consistent rules for transitioning dairy livestock to organic.

The organic regulations allow conventional dairy animals to be transitioned into organic production after being raised organically for one year prior to milk being sold as organic. This was meant to be a one-time allowance so that dairy farms had the opportunity to convert their farm to organic without having to purchase an entirely new herd.

However, a loophole in the current regulations has allowed some farms to continuously transition animals into organic production after only one year rather than raising them organically from birth.

USDA’s own Inspector General issued a report directing the National Organic Program (NOP) to clarify the regulations surrounding transition of organic dairy livestock to ensure consistent enforcement. In 2015, NOP issued a proposed rule that strengthened the standards, and created a level playing field for all organic dairy farmers. However, after taking public comments a final rule was never issued, and it was inexplicably removed from USDA’s work plan.

Growth in organic milks sales is slowly declining as the overall dairy market struggles. For organic dairy farmers trying to stay in business, the cost differential between raising calves organically from birth versus raising them conventionally and then later transitioning them to organic is estimated to be between $600 and $1,000 more per calf. In a highly competitive market, it is crucial for organic dairy farmers to be operating on a level playing field.

The Organic Trade Association recently formed an Organic Dairy Sector Council, with its member companies and farmers comprising more than 90% of the total organic dairy market. One of the council’s first actions was to send a letter to USDA in February urging the agency to issue a final rule on the origin of livestock immediately.

Shortly after, the trade association and the council members worked on a strategy to ensure USDA acted by advocating that Congress — both House and Senate — include language in their yearly appropriations legislation that funds USDA requiring the agency to issue a final rule. The advocacy efforts were successful, and the House of Representatives recently voted on and passed a fiscal year 2020 agriculture appropriations bill requiring USDA to issue a final rule on the origin of livestock within 180 days of the act being signed into law.

We are currently working on securing identical language in the Senate version of the appropriations bill so that organic dairy farmers can have certainty, and no longer have to wait for this long overdue rule. //