Rulemaking Could Institutionalize Conventional Livestock on Organic Farms

One of Aurora’s “organic” dairies, each managing
many thousands of cows (producing private label
milk for Walmart, Costco, Target and others)

Advocates for organic food and farming are encouraging industry stakeholders to send comments to the USDA, by July 27, rejecting a proposal that would facilitate conventional dairy cows, pigs, and other stock being brought onto farms after the dairies or other livestock facilities initially gained certified organic status. The department’s National Organic Program has been accused of facilitating the expansion of “factory farms” producing organic milk, meat and eggs through the agency’s lax enforcement of existing regulations, and experts say the new rules could continue that trend.

The proposed draft rule is intended to discontinue a practice that many in the organic dairy industry have long claimed is illegal.  Giant factory farms, many milking thousands of cows each, have been buying one-year-old replacement animals and “converting” them to organic on an ongoing basis.

“This routine makes a mockery of the holistic approach to organic livestock agriculture that the law is designed to promote,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

Some large industrial-scale dairy operators sell all their baby calves at birth and replace them with conventional animals that have been raised on conventional/GMO feed, antibiotics and other drugs banned in organic production.

Other industrial dairies that may or may not sell their calves push the cows for such high production that the animals typically “burn out” at a young age, necessitating the purchase of replacement heifers.

Cornucopia’s Kastel said, “These practices place ethical family-scale organic dairy producers at a competitive disadvantage and betray the confidence consumers have in the organic label.  Real organic farmers don’t buy replacement heifers — they sell replacement heifers.” Organic family-scale farms typically have animals that live healthier and longer lives resulting in a surplus of the animals born on the farm.

The USDA’s draft proposal would limit organic dairy farmers to purchasing transitioned replacement animals from other certified organic dairies.  Historically, organic dairies could take advantage of a one-time exemption transitioning their entire farm, and animals, to organic production. [Cornucopia does want to encourage farmers to continue going through the rigorous three-year transition for their farmland and/or one-year transition for their animals.] The duplicity in the new rule, The Cornucopia Institute alleges, is the draft definition of a farm: to be considered a “dairy farm” requires that an operation milk just one (1) dairy cow.

“The proposed USDA regulations , allowing conventional herds to transition to organic production in one year, need to be prescriptive to avoid abuse that will directly affect the pay price and family income of dairy producers,” said respected organic dairy industry expert Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Added Maltby:  “By specifying that the organic certificate holder is the recipient of a one-time exemption, allowing conventional animals to become organically certified in one year, the USDA has opened the door to individuals and corporations exploiting this exception by using conventional dairy livestock to continually start new organic dairies.”

“Through organic alchemy, phony dairy farms milking one cow each could simultaneously convert thousands of replacement animals from conventional to organic, and sell them to the industrial operations,” according to Kastel.  Between making it cheaper to start new industrial dairies, as Mr. Maltby describes, and phony replacement cattle on these unsustainable operations, the USDA has, heretofore, looked the other way in the factory farm takeover of organic dairy.  The agency’s new rule could now legalize these practices.”

Impact on Hog Production and Other Slaughter Stock

The Cornucopia Institute also has concerns about the USDA’s draft provision allowing conventional hogs, and other breeding stock, to be brought onto organic farms undermining accepted organic practices and, once again, placing ethical industry participants, with closed herds, at a competitive disadvantage. Under the draft rule, producers could raise hogs, as an example, for the first year of their life with conventional feed and drugs banned in organics — on a continuous basis.

The Cornucopia Institute contends that this liberal interpretation was not the intent of Congress when it provided for adding breeding stock to existing farms.

“We see the need for very limited provisions to bring conventional animals in strictly for breeding, to diversify genetics (the animals would never qualify as organic meat),” said Kastel, “but the way they are proposing this could allow agricultural interests, producing both conventional and organic livestock, to shuffle animals back and forth between organic and conventional management.  That would be completely unacceptable and needs to be clarified.”

Producers gaming the system could, once again, raise all their replacement, first litter sows using conventional/GMO feed, along with many drugs banned in organics, and significantly reduce their costs.  They might even switch their sows back to conventional management and not bring them back on organic feed until the last third of their next gestation. Pigs typically have two litters per year.

“If ‘organic’ is to be meaningful, and therefore worthy of our trust,” said Will Winter, DVM, a large animal veterinarian and expert on hog production, “we must assure that our protocol does not provide convenient blind spots wherein conventionally-raised livestock can be slipped in via the back gate, and then magically anointed as ‘organic’.  If loopholes for cheaters exist, it is financially unfair to the honest organic producers, and it is disingenuous to the consumers who are paying a premium for the assurance of wholesomeness and value,” Dr. Winter stated.

Similar concerns exist for other species, including goats, sheep and beef cattle, but the potential profit from these scenarios is less likely.  However, Cornucopia contends, the reliance on conventional replacement livestock, other than to diversify genetics, should be controlled in those sectors as well.

“We call upon the USDA to close the loophole for breeding stock by creating additional safeguards that would prevent rotating animals in and out of organic production. The rule should allow only periodic and limited additions for genetic diversity, and prohibit the practice of converting first litter sows to organic production on a continual basis,” Kastel stated.

The Cornucopia Institute has made available to the public an Action Alert describing, in more detail, the problematic aspects of the USDA’s draft proposal on the origin of livestock. The organization encourages organic stakeholders to make their voice heard in the rulemaking process. All comments are due, on the USDA’s website (, by July 27.


“Management at the National Organic Program has sat back and watched organic dairy production by large ‘factory farms’ ramp-up to produce, likely, over half of the organic milk in this country today,” explained Kastel.

In their formal comments to the USDA, and outlined in the organization’s Action Alert, The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, asks regulators to tighten up the definition of an organic farm related to the one-time exemption allowing cattle to be converted from conventional to organic.

Cornucopia suggests that, instead of having to milk only one cow, the farming operation be required to be a commercial dairy, inspected and permitted by the state, and to have a relationship with a licensed milk handler shipping to a licensed dairy plant.  Furthermore, Cornucopia suggests that the operation be established, shipping milk, for no less than 180 days and that any animals sold have been producing milk themselves (no young converted animals, who have never been milked, could qualify to be sold as “organic”).

Cornucopia admits that even their proposal, above, for tightening the definition of a farm could be gamed.  An even simpler solution, according to Kastel, would be to ban, outright, the sale to an organic operation of any cattle that had been converted.  This is consistent with the comments submitted to the USDA by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA).

Some have suggested that this stricter approach would be an imposition on small family farmers who convert their herds and later befall some catastrophe (a health emergency, death in the family, etc.) forcing them to sell their cattle as conventional without an organic premium.

“The reason this loophole would virtually never be used is that, after a period of just five years or so, through the normal attrition on dairies, younger animals, ones who were born onto the organic farm, would be replacing the older cows that had been converted.  Eventually there would be no converted cows left,” according to Kastel.

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