The organic label offers unique assurances about how food was grown, raised, and processed.

As ruminant livestock, beef cattle are more regulated than any other certified organic animal, with clear requirements for pasturing and diet.

Cows in tall grass prairie
Photo Courtesy of Hutchinson Organic Ranch/Panorama Organic

What the organic standards, rules, and regulations promise

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) sets a regulatory floor for all organic livestock, including cattle. Certified organic cattle must be produced without:[1]

  • Genetic engineering All organic food is non-GMO, including the feed and pasture for animals.
  • Ionizing radiation Irradiation is widely used in conventional food to prevent spoiling, sprouting, and ripening, and to kill insects and other organisms, such as E. coli, that cause disease. Organic farmers rely on optimal care for animals and plants, rather than irradiation, for food safety.
  • Sewage sludge Sewage sludge is made up of highly toxic, concentrated solids from human waste and whatever else gets flushed down the toilet. It contains a surprising amount of prescription medication and chemicals, and non-organic farmers may apply it to their fields as fertilizer. Organic famers fertilize with compost, animal waste, and other approved inputs.
  • Growth promoters or hormones that stimulate growth or production[2] These are widely used in non-organic industrialized meat and milk production, including in non-organic, grass-fed beef.
  • Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics or medication in the absence of illness[3] In conventional production, low doses are frequently administered to prevent sickness and to encourage growth. While organic farmers may rarely give antibiotics to sick animals, those animals and their products are no longer allowed to bear the organic seal. Vaccines are allowed in organic production as long as they meet certain requirements (as laid out in § 205.600(a)).
  • Plastic pellets, manure, or urea in feed[4] You read that correctly. In conventional beef cattle production, feed may include plastic for “roughage,” poultry manure for undigested nutrients, and urea for protein. None of this is allowed in organic production.

Beyond what is forbidden in organic beef production, there are several required practices:

  • Cattle must be managed to conserve natural resources and biodiversity.[5] In practice, this might include preserving healthy riparian borders, encouraging wildlife on-farm, and tracking soil health. Conventional feedlots allow manure to pollute local waterways, soil, and air, and wildlife is considered a nuisance.
  • Producers must keep accurate records on each animal to build an audit trail.[6] When customers or inspectors want to know about feed, supplements, and any medications given to members of the herd, the information is available in detail.
  • Cattle must be fed 100% organic feed and certified organic pasture forage.[7]
  • Cattle must be finished under specific conditions prior to slaughter. Read more about this in the section below, “Rules for Finishing Organic Beef.”

Further organic livestock standards are built onto OFPA’s framework, providing detailed requirements for livestock feed,[8] health care practices,[9] and living conditions.[10]

The minimum legal standards for how beef cattle are raised are further clarified in the regulations. For example, all cattle must be provided with year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight.[11]

Cattle may be confined only temporarily and for specific reasons, such as bad weather, the animal’s health and well-being, and risks to soil and water quality.[12]  In conventional livestock production, cattle are often kept in densely packed, squalid conditions, which allows disease to proliferate. Organic producers are required to promote wellness in their livestock, and disease and illness  are managed primarily with preventive healthcare.

Since organic beef herds tend to be much smaller than the massive herds in conventional feedlots, farmers are also more likely to notice, and notice more quickly, when an animal is sick or lame. Earlier intervention when disease strikes frequently means the intervention can be less intrusive: For example, a well-timed nutritional boost can prevent the need to use antibiotics (which would force the animal out of organic production) later.

The organic rules generally protect animals, humans, and the environment from harmful synthetic substances allowed in conventional agriculture. Every synthetic substance and medication that is allowed is first reviewed by material review organizations, including the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) for compatibility with the National Organic Program (NOP) rules. It must also go through a rigorous review by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), including an opportunity for public comments on the substance.

All synthetic substances allowed in organic beef production are listed under §205.603, also called the National List . Most of this National List includes benign substances like aspirin, activated charcoal, and lidocaine. Parasiticides cannot be used on organic slaughter stock — including beef animals — either.[13] Most of the substances on the National List are fairly benign, such as aspirin, activated charcoal, and lidocaine. Usage of substances known to negatively impact human and animal health and the environment are prohibited or highly restricted.[14]

Organic beef producers may also prevent health problems in their herds by selecting appropriate breeds of cattle for site-specific conditions.[15] Breeds favored in conventional production are sought for their quick production and ability to live in confinement without a natural diet. Many organic cattle ranchers choose or develop varieties of cattle that thrive on a forage-based diet and conditions that are relevant to their unique area. This work can take years.

Pasture as Organic Crop

The key to authentic organic beef is high-quality certified organic pasture managed like [16]any other organic crop.  This means authentic beef producers nourish and support the needs of their pasture above all else, taking into account the location and climate, as well as the needs of the cattle. Pasture cannot be treated with synthetic pesticides.

“You are what you eat” applies to beef cattle too!

According to current regulations, pasture is only required for organic ruminant livestock, including cattle (work is needed on requirements for swine and poultry). Organic beef cattle who have been weaned but have not yet entered their “finishing period” are subject to a collection of rules called the “pasture rule.”

During this stage of life, all organic beef cattle must:

  • Be provided only certified organic pasture daily during the grazing season (with some exceptions for temporary confinement and finishing for slaughter stock);[17]
  • Graze on organic pastures for the duration of a region’s grazing season (which must be at least 120 days a year but may be longer);
  • Take in at least 30% of their dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture[18]. An animal may eat grasses on pasture all summer and then eat hay, supplemented by grain, during the winter. DMI is calculated on average, over the course of a year. (Of course, some beef producers forego grain altogether and provide only pasture and stored forage like hay year-round. These cattle are 100% grass fed.)

Rules for Finishing Organic Beef

The finishing period for beef cattle happens at the end of their lives, in preparation for slaughter. During this period, producers try to fatten their animals as efficiently as possible. At the time the pasture rule was enacted, feedlots were common in all scales of production, both conventional and organic.

Conventional beef cattle are fed a large daily ration of grains, corn, and legumes along with some kind of forage like hay or silage. What most consumers don’t know is that cattle are also fed waste from other industries such as sawdust, and even discarded candy. This is an unnatural diet for cattle who evolved to feed primarily on grasses and other living plants. The typical conventional producer looks for feed that is cheap and will promote growth in their animals, not what is best for animal welfare or the environment.

In comparison, organic regulation requires that “Ruminant slaughter stock, typically grain finished, shall be maintained on pasture for each day that the finishing period corresponds with the grazing season for the geographical location…”[19] This means that during finishing, organic beef cattle must have access to pasture if they are being finished during their area’s grazing season, but they don’t need to meet the minimum 30% DMI requirement for this period.

While beef cattle are finishing, the herd must be provided enough feed and space to avoid crowding or competing for food. The finishing period cannot comprise more than one-fifth of the animal’s lifetime or 120 days, whichever is shorter.[20] The process for organic cattle is preferable to conventional finishing, but it enables “organic” feedlots.

Many organic producers confine beef cattle during finishing and feed them a diet higher in grain or other concentrates. The cattle may be “on pasture” daily, but, if they are full of grain, they do not meaningfully graze. This speeds up growth, reducing the time needed to reach slaughter weight, but it also changes the taste, quality, and nutritional composition of the meat.

Increasing consumer demand for 100% grass fed beef has encouraged more organic producers to finish their beef cattle on pasture, resulting in improved herd and environmental health, as well as higher quality beef.

Together, our dollars make a difference. Investing in the superior management practices of authentic organic beef producers diverts money from factory farms to producers who deserve our support.

[1] 7 USC § 6509

[2] 7 U.S. Code § 6509(c)(3)

[3] 7 U.S. Code § 6509(d)(1)

[4] 7 USC § 6509(c)(2)

[5] 7 USC § 6503(d)

[6] 7 USC § 6509(f)

[7] 7 CFR § 205.237(a)

[8] § 205.237

[9] § 205.238

[10] § 205.239

[11] 7 CRF § 205.239(a)(1)

[12] 7 CRF § 205.239(a)(1)

[14] 7 CFR §205.603(a)(18)

[15] 7 CFR § 205.238(a)

[16] 7 CFR § 205.240(a)

[17] This includes providing pasture in compliance with § 205.239(a)(2) and managing pasture to comply with the requirements of § 205.237(c)(2) (essentially managing pasture like an organic crop).

[18] 7 CFR § 205.240(b)

[19] 7 CFR § 205.239(d)

[20] 7 CFR § 5.239(d)