Dairy cattle walking down a farm lane
Updated: July 31, 2023
By Emily Stamper, Extension Intern, UME—Washington County and WMREC

Organic Dairy Production Standards: Educating the Consumer

There are a lot of questions and misconceptions when it comes to conventional versus organic milk. The USDA has five main points for milk to be certified as organic. The first is that the cows must be raised under organic standards from at least the last third of gestation. Cows can be bought and raised organic or a herd can be transitioned to organic over no longer than a year's time. A farm cannot continually transition animals over, it must be done all at once. The second standard is that livestock must be fed 100% organic feed. An organic cow’s diet is a main part of the organic standard. Feed additives and supplements must be off the National list and only minerals and vitamins that are FDA approved are allowed. Calves must be fed organic milk and organic feed as well. Farmers cannot use milk replacer or medicated grain.

The third standard is that cows must have access to the outdoors year round. The land must qualify for organic certification, and you must have a pasture plan. The pasture and feed and bedding must also all be organic. No continuous total confinement indoors is allowed over six months of age. One week is allowed for cows to dry off and three weeks prior to parturition and one week after is also ok. The fourth standard is that cows must be on pasture for the entire grazing season, not less than 120 days. This ensures that at least 30% of feed is from pasture. The final standard is that preventative measures must be taken to take care of sick cows, but if they are treated with products that are not organic-certified, they can no longer be classified as organic.

“...it is important for producers to educate the consumer and for consumers to do their own research to find out for themselves what they are buying.“

When it comes to antibiotics, farmers cannot withhold treatment. However, they must make a record of it and notify their certifier. They then must segregate the animal and milk it separately. It then gets sold to a non-organic market and the sale is documented. When it comes to parasiticides, biological control methods and non-synthetic controls are allowed. Dewormers are allowed in health care emergencies and cases of acute and dangerously high levels of parasites. This is only allowed when preventative and vet biologics are inadequate to prevent sickness. There is then a 90 day withholding period for lactating cows. No synthetic parasiticides are allowed except Ivermectin, Moxidectin (e.g., Cydectin®), and Fenbendazole (e.g., Safeguard®). When these are used the farmer must make a record and notify the certifier. The animal then gets segregated for 90 days and is milked separately. The milk cannot be used even for feeding calves.

Producers who do the bare minimum to meet these standards and those who exceed the standards are both selling milk that is labeled with the same USDA Organic label. There are different organic terms however. “Organic” means that the product is at least 95% organic. “Made with organic” means that it is at least 70% organic. Anything less than 70% organic may have specific ingredients listed that are identified as organic. This shows consumers that just because they think something is “organic” does not mean that it is all on the same playing field. One producer’s milk might be labeled “organic” but is doing the bare minimum for their herd to be certified, whereas another producer is going above and beyond the standard. This is why it is important for producers to educate the consumer and for consumers to do their own research to find out for themselves what they are buying.

This article appears on July 28, 2023, in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Maryland Milk Moos newsletter.

Maryland Milk Moo's, July 28, 2023, Vol. 4, Issue 2

Maryland Milk Moos is a quarterly newsletter published by the University of Maryland Extension that focuses on dairy topics related to Nutrition and Production, Herd Management, and Forage Production. To subscribe to this newsletter, click the button below to enter your contact information.