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Tuesday, June 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Organic-milk fight takes aim at grazing time

Seattle Times business reporter

What's happening


The USDA is requesting public comments to determine whether it should revise its requirement for ruminant animals like dairy cows to have access to pasture to be certified organic.

Current regulations call for animals to have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter and exercise areas, among other things, but they do not specify what is meant by "access to pasture."

The department wants to make sure its regulations "are clear and consistent, stimulate growth of the organic sector, satisfy consumer expectations and allow organic producers and handlers flexibility in making site-specific, real-time management decisions."

If the USDA decides to create a new rule for pasture access, it will ask for public comments on that proposed rule.

For instructions on how to comment, go to www.ams.usda.gov/nop and click on the "Public Comments" section.

Anyone reading the label of an organic milk, butter or cheese container might get the impression the cows behind those products spend much of their time in verdant pastures.

The labels often portray cows grazing on grassland, and studies show that consumers of organic milk products believe the animals live that way.

But there's no telling how often the organic dairy cow leaves the milking shed, because current federal regulations are vague on the issue. A battle is raging in the industry over regulations that would specify how much time cows spend in pastures and how much of their food comes from grazing rather than feedlots.

Some dairy farmers worry that big dairies looking to make money from the lucrative organic-milk business have found ways to get around the current rule requiring access to pasture for organic livestock that ruminates — that is, digests its food several times. A public comment period that ends Monday will help determine whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture revises that requirement.

"This is how we originally got in trouble with conventional milk," said Robert Schmid, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from the Trout Lake Valley in Klickitat County, near Mount Adams, who has about 425 cows.

"The large dairies came up here and could milk thousands of cows on a small amount of acreage, and I certainly don't want to see organics go that way," Schmid said.

Dairies of all sizes have converted to organic in recent years, largely because it pays more.

Sales of organic dairy products, including eggs, grew 23.6 percent last year and represented 15 percent of organic food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, figures farmers are paid almost twice as much for organic milk as they are for conventional milk.

In the past couple years, Washington's number of organic dairies has grown from three to about 35, including some like Gordon's that are in the process of converting.

Speaking for himself and not the federation, Gordon said he is not sure what should be done about the pasture requirement.

His dairy would meet the National Organic Standards Board's recommendation to the USDA that ruminant animals spend at least 120 days on pasture and receive at least 30 percent of their food from grazing during each region's pasture growing season.

Gordon sympathizes with farmers who say they would have trouble meeting that minimum level of pasture time or grazing.

Not all such dairies are trying to break the rules for a profit, he said. "Grazing works well for us in Southwest Washington, but I'm a little reluctant as a farmer to judge different areas of the country."

Gordon also said that some cows that live in feedlots are quite comfortable, but he believes organic dairy cows should spend time on pasture, partly because that's what consumers expect.

"There are large dairies that are looking at the organic rule and saying they have too many cows or it's too far to walk [to pasture]," he said.

Aurora Organic Dairy in Boulder, Colo., has been accused of allowing too little pasture time for its 7,800 dairy cows in Colorado and Texas.

Spokesman Clark Driftmier said its cows spend at least two months a year on pasture and receive about 5 percent of their food from grazing.

Regarding the 120-day, 30 percent grazing recommendation, Driftmier said, "those two proposals are among many different parts of what would constitute a pasture rule, and we'll be commenting on those and all the other parts" before the deadline.

Goldie Caughlan, nutrition-education manager for PCC Natural Markets and a former member of the organic standards board, said the recommendation came after board members consulted with thousands of dairy farmers about what would be viable.

"We did not just dream this up. This was intended by a consensus of the farmers themselves to be a minimum," she said.

"It worries me that there may be a few people out there who may have difficulties with that because of climate changes, and I think minor variations can be worked out."

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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