Organic Sense

Animal Husbandry and the Organic Rule

by Dr. Wendy Fulwider, Animal Husbandry Specialist  on February 21, 2011

The Organic Rule is not generally thought of in terms of animal welfare, though it should be. Organic farming is a whole systems approach encompassing health of the soil, water, air, and the vast array of life existing in each. Health of our livestock is impacted by crop production and land management practices. When crops are grown without toxic herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, life in the soil and water, birds and honeybees, livestock and wildlife that live on the land and graze the crops all flourish. This whole system approach leads to and benefits an abundance of life! At the very heart of organic farm management is a healthy, sustainable agro-ecosystem with healthy and contented livestock. 

As a member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) since January 24, 2010, I have had the opportunity to be a part of NOSB’s process of managing the National Organic Program’s (NOP’s) list of allowed and prohibited substances in organic agriculture and our responsibility of proposing recommendations regarding additions or clarifications to the Organic Rule. This is a long and intensive process, which involves many stakeholders in the organic industry.

High animal welfare was a priority when the Organic Foods Production Act was written into law in 1990, and the animal care practices listed here are still enforced today. Farmers are required to provide only wholesome certified organic feedstuffs. If any animal becomes ill and requires antibiotics to restore health, the animal loses its organic status and must to be sold to a non-organic farm or, if a meat animal, processed as non-organic meat. Farmers must implement species-specific practices that minimize the occurrence and spread of parasites and disease. Pain and stress must be minimized when performing physical alterations using medications approved and recommended for this use. Approved vaccines are used to prevent disease as needed. Farmers must provide access to pasture for ruminants, as well as appropriate species- and climate-specific housing, outdoor access, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight are required.

Since 1990, twenty years of continuous improvement has been demonstrated by the organic program in regard to livestock health care and living conditions. For instance, the Board has approved the use of the pain medication lidocaine and other “comfort meds” to reduce stress on the animal during dehorning and other surgical procedures. The NOSB and NOP’s most recent achievement was with the addition of a Pasture Rule in 2010. This rule provides more clarity to an animal’s need for outdoor access, and makes it a requirement that organic livestock have the opportunity to graze on healthy pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year, or more if their climate allows.

I have visited many organic farms in recent years. Having observed the behavior and conditions of dairy cows, laying hens, beef cattle and hogs, I can say that organic livestock are, overall, in excellent health and extremely content due to their spacious and species appropriate environments. Over the past year, I have evaluated dairy cows across the country for body condition, hygiene, locomotion, lesions and injuries, among other things, and have been very pleased with what I have seen. Livestock benefit greatly from being out on pasture when weather conditions are appropriate. These cows are athletes and have exceptional muscle tone and stamina as a result of grazing and daily treks to and from the milking barn and their pastures. Grazing cows have the opportunity to balance their own diet and eat the plants they crave when provided well-managed, rotationally-grazed pastures with a wide variety of plants. Cows are treated as individuals and most farmers know their cows by name.

Organic dairy calves are especially healthy as they receive only fresh whole milk and no milk replacers at any time. Calves are often raised in small groups and the milk is served to the calves via a milk bar where they nurse as a group. This is good for the calves as they bond with the farmer and become much easier to work with as they grow older and larger. When they are ready, the young cows are provided adequate space to roam and pasture to graze.

There are increasing numbers of veterinarians and nutritionists specializing in holistic care of organic livestock as the industry continues to grow. Schools and workshops on humane care and alternative medicine have become more common across the country. When nutrition and environment are structured to the needs of the species, animals naturally develop stronger immune systems. Allowing animals to perform natural behaviors—such as cattle grazing and moving around open spaces; hogs rooting, wallowing, and raising their young on pasture; and laying hens able to go outdoors during the day and rest on roosts and perches at night—enjoy reduced stress levels.

Piglets are often born and raised in hutches out on pastures in the warm seasons. They are generally born in litters of 10-12 and do best at a temperature of 90º F during the first week of life, so during periods of harsh winter when it is freezing or below, piglets are raised in huts or pens with the added protection of a regular or hoop-style barn. Laying hens enjoy scratching outdoors during the day and nesting or roosting while indoors.

Organic livestock benefit from high levels of animal welfare as a result of the Organic Rule. Animals on Organic Valley farms enjoy plenty of space, outdoor access, sunlight, organic feed and receive no growth promoters, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified feedstuffs. The best way to understand the benefits that organic farming offers to animals is to visit a farm yourself and see first hand. Take advantage of farms that offer tours, operate public farm stands, or the next time you are at a farmers' market, make a personal connection with an organic farmer—perhaps they will offer to host you for a visit. 

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