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Transitioning non-organic dairy farm to organic

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 April Issue Newsletter

Suzy Konecky, Beginning Farmer Program & Raw Milk Program Coordinator

A transition to organic certification is an important decision for any farmer, regardless of the size and type of farm.  There is no one size fits all recipe for organic farming.  Even within a certain area of food production, or a specific crop, there is no blueprint, but there are some overarching concepts that are relevant regardless of the specifics of each farm.  Ultimately, the decision whether or not to transition to organic production, or certified organic, will largely depend on your unique skills, preferences, resources available to you, relationship with your animals and your customers, and market base.  However, it is a transition that any farm can make, if they are committed to the success of the process and the benefits doing so would bring to your whole farm system.  This article touches on some of the major concepts of organic dairy farming, and what a transition to a certified organic dairy farm could look like.

The process of a transition to being certified organic is a unique one for a dairy farm, as opposed to other types of livestock farms.  The reason is that dairy animals are the only type of livestock that can undergo a transition if the animal was not born into an organic system.  Due to this unique situation, you as the farmer can think of your transition as really two transitions: one for the land, and one for the livestock.

In order for the land to become certified organic, the land has to have been free of prohibited substances for 36 months.  These 36 months are considered the transition period, but if you already have land that has been free from prohibited substances, they may qualify immediately and you won’t have to wait the 36 months.  Prohibited substances include, but are not limited to the following: herbicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and chemically treated or genetically engineered seeds.  If a prohibited substance is used on a field, that field starts the transition period again and you need to wait another 3 years before that piece of land can be approved for organic production. 

When in doubt about whether a certain product or substance is acceptable, there are a couple steps you can take to find out.  A starting point would be to go to the Organic Materials Review Institute website (www.omri.org) and enter the product you are considering using to ascertain its status. Depending on what you find on there, it is a good idea to contact and ask your local certifying agency.  There are products that are approved but not listed on OMRI, so keep that in mind. 

The livestock transition period is 12 months.  This means that dairy cows can become certified organic if they are managed organically for 12 months - including being fed organic feed, living in appropriate conditions, and not given any prohibited substances.  As of a 2005 amendment of the Organic Foods Production Act, farmers are allowed to feed their own 3rd year transitional feed (feed produced on their own land in the final 12 months of a transition – no purchased transitional feed is allowed) to their cows during the livestock transition period.  However, the cows must be on completely organic feed at the time that their milk becomes certified organic.  It is critical to remember that a cow (or herd of cows) can only be transitioned once.  Once a cow (or herd) is certified organic, they must be managed organically for the rest of their lives.  If they are not then they will fall out of the organic program for good. 

Managing a dairy cow organically may seem like a big step for a transitioning farm, but if you are already grazing your cows and avoiding conventional health care products, you are likely most of the way there.  The above paragraph mentions three aspects of an organic cow - being fed organic feed, living in appropriate conditions, and not given any prohibited substances.  With regards to the feed, it is important to remember that this includes all grains, forages, pastures, and also means that any supplemental minerals or vitamins contain only approved ingredients.  Dairy animals that are certified organic are required to be grazed on pasture during the grazing season for their area, which needs to be at least 120 days of each year.  At least 30% of their DMI (dry matter intake) must be obtained by grazing.  During all times of year, whether or not the animals are grazing, they must have access to the outdoors, and any plant based materials that are used for bedding indoors must be certified organic. 

Health care might be your major concern when considering a transition to organic certification, especially if your local vet is not familiar with organic health care practices.  Most conventional health care products such as antibiotics, steroids, hormones, etc. are prohibited in organic certification.  However, there are a plethora of products that are allowed including aspirin, minerals (such as calcium, electrolytes, homeopathic remedies), essential oils, and more.  A good place to start finding out about approved products is to ask organic dairy farmers in your area what works for them.  There are many companies that can help you navigate the options and figure out what you want to keep in your medicine cabinet versus what you might need to order only for treatments. 

Record keeping is another important piece of organic certification that must be considered from the start of your process. All records including field amendments, all products purchased, all vet treatments, etc. must be documented.  If you think about the beginning of the season working forward, here are some of the activities that you need to document: any seed you purchase for planting, calving, calf feeding and care, manure spreading, planting, pasture rotations, health treatments, chemical purchase for cleaning and sanitizing, forage harvesting, and milk sales.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of the detail in which records are needed. The records don’t need to be fancy – handwritten on a notebook or calendar works fine for most.

Before certification is granted, the farmer must have an Organic System Plan approved by their certifying agency and pass an on-site inspection.  An Organic System Plan (OSP) provides an overview of the systems and practices followed on your particular farm.  You will have the opportunity to write your own system plan, based on your particular location, practices, skills, and opportunities.  An OSP includes the following: your farm procedures, all the materials that you use an inputs, your monitoring practices of soil and animal health, a description of your record keeping systems, a description of how you keep non-organic products out of your farm, farm maps and history.  Your certifying agent will provide you a pre-formatted OSP for you to fill out; they will review your OSP and inform you if any changes need to be made.  They can answer any specific questions you have about filling out the OSP. If you are in compliance with the National Organic Program (NOP), an inspector will come to your farm for a visit.  If the inspector has no concerns after a visit to the farm, certification will be granted.  Any small issues of noncompliance can often be adjusted over a specific time period. 

There are several good resources for organic dairy farming that all those considering a transition could take advantage of.  Anyone who is considering becoming certified organic, or just wants to remain abreast of issues and topics in organic dairying, should join the e-mail list for NODPA - Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.  Their website is here: www.nodpa.com.  Other resources specific to transition include: ATTRA Publications (www.attra.ncat.org), OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute at www.omri.org), SARE Publications (www.sare.org/htdocs/pubs), and the Organic Dairy Production Handbook as part of the NOFA Organic Principles and Practices Handbook Series, written by Sarah Flack. 

NOFA/Mass members have the benefit of certification assistance through the newly established role of the Certification Assistance Coordinator.  Please reach out to lauradavis@nofamass.org or suzy@nofamass.org

 

 

 

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