Demand for organic meats and dairy foods continues to grow and consumers have shown willingness to pay substantial premiums for them, so livestock production can be an attractive opportunity for new and transitioning organic farmers. Animals also add value to an integrated organic farm by helping replenish nutrients from pastures and fields back into the soil. Grazing or browsing livestock also can generate value from land not suitable for row crop production, assist with weed management, and help distribute income and workload throughout the year. Livestock can also add flexibility to your operation, enabling you to sell crops directly or feed them through animals as market conditions or other factors shift.

Organic livestock management comes with very specific requirements that can be challenging for farmers accustomed to conventional systems. Generally speaking, organic standards favor pasture-based systems, as they tend to be less input-intensive and place a strong emphasis on providing for the animals’ natural behaviors. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) standards cover all aspects of organic certified livestock production under five extensive sections, from 205.236 to 205.240.

Like other organic products, organic livestock must be:

  • Produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge
  • Managed in a manner that conserves natural resources and biodiversity
  • Raised per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
  • Overseen by a USDA NOP-authorized certifying agent, meeting all USDA organic regulations
  • Fed 100 percent certified organic feed, except for trace minerals and vitamins used to meet the animal’s nutritional requirement
  • Managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts, or other prohibited feed ingredients (e.g., urea, manure, or arsenic compounds)

Organic livestock must be raised in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors. These include:

  • Access to the outdoors
  • Shelter
  • Shade
  • Clean, dry bedding
  • Space for exercise
  • Fresh air
  • Clean drinking water

To earn organic certification for livestock products, your Organic System Plan will need to account for:

  • Your source for animals, if you don’t raise them from newborn to production yourself
  • Your source for feed, especially if you don’t grow it all yourself
  • The size and conditions of the shelter that will house the animals
  • How the animals will regularly access the outdoors
  • A health-care plan for the animals that does not include the use of antibiotics and other prohibited substances
  • Manure management
  • Plans for processing the livestock into products for market. 

Watch Emily Newman, Program Manager at Rodale Institute discuss the NOP rule as it applies to organic livestock production in the following video.

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