Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued new rules meant to ensure that organic dairy products come from animals that spend most of their time grazing pasture, not cooped up eating grain, as has been the practice at some of the larger organic dairy operations.
The regulations, which go into effect in June, require, in part, that animals graze pasture a minimum of 120 days during the grazing season and get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture.
Jennifer Holmes of Victor's Lifeline Farms, one of only two certified organic dairies in Montana (the other being Belgrade's Amaltheia Organic Dairy, a goat cheese dairy), calls the rules "a huge step in the right direction," but believes they should go even further to ensure the integrity of organic dairy products.
"I think they could do better, I do," Holmes says. "Especially considering that we're in the frozen north, and we do much more pasture grazing than that...But I'm sure it's a win compared to what the rules are now."
Lifeline's practices already exceed what will be required by the new rules, so Holmes doubts they will have much impact on the farm's business. But the effects will likely be felt elsewhere in the state.
"The primary impact of this rule in Montana will be not be on dairy operations, but on beef cattle and sheep grazing operations," explains Doug Crabtree, organic certification program manager for the Montana Department of Agriculture. "Because while the outcry that led to the rule-making was almost entirely about dairy production, the rule will affect the production of all ruminant animals."
Specifically, the rules affect the finish-feeding practices of slaughter livestock. The USDA extended the comment period for that provision until April 19.
Even so, Crabtree expects the rules to be more beneficial than burdensome.
"I think anything that enhances the consumer perception and confidence in the organic standard will be good for all organic growers in Montana, whether they be beef cattle growers or grain growers," he says. "There will be a spillover."