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Can You Transition Conventional Dairy Cows to Organic Cows?

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Organic brown cows grazing in pasture
Photo ©Organic Trade Association
Question: Can You Transition Conventional Dairy Cows to Organic Cows?
Answer:

The short answer is yes, you can transition your conventional dairy operation to organic, but there are clear rules that must be followed. Transitioning to organic dairy production from conventional can be a challenge, but it's not impossible. In fact, many cases organic milk producers start out as conventional dairy operators who later decide to go organic.

Before you make the decision to transition to organic...

Going certified organic, especially when it comes to dairy, is not a fly by night decision. Really think it through before you make a decision. In order to decide if going organic is right for you, take a look at the following helpful articles:

Does NOP allow conventional dairy cows to transition to organic?: The short answer is yes, but in order to qualify for organic certification, dairy producers need to first make some necessary changes in how they manage their farm. Specifically, changes in animal husbandry, land and crop management, input sourcing, among other issues, must be addressed.

What origin is required of organic dairy cows?: Dairy cows, like other organic livestock, have specific origin rules in place. In general, milk or dairy products must be from animals that have been under continuous organic management starting no later than 1 year prior to the production of the milk or dairy products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic.

Are there exceptions to the 1 year rule?: Crops and forage from your land that are included in your organic system plan (OSP) may be consumed by your dairy animals during the 12-month period immediately prior to the sale of organic milk and dairy products, but your farm must be in the third year of organic management.

What if you're converting an entire herd to organic?: If you're planning to convert your entire herd to organic production you can do it, but NOP notes that "Producers may, provided no milk produced under this subparagraph enters the stream of commerce labeled as organic after June 9, 2007: (a) For the first 9 months of the year, provide a minimum of 80% feed that is either organic or raised from land included in the organic system plan and managed in compliance with organic crop requirements; and (b) Provide feed in compliance with §205.237 for the final 3 months."

What happens once my entire herd goes organic?: Once your whole distinct herd has been converted to organic production basic organic policy applies. This means that from now on, all dairy livestock needs to under organic management from the last third of gestation. You cannot manage your cows non-organically anymore, even if it's only temporary.

What's the best way to get started if I want to go organic?: Take a look at what goes into an organic pasture management plan. The organic pasture plan will give you a great idea about what it takes to get your organic dairy up and running. Plus, as an organic dairy producer, you'll need to maintain records that preserve the identity of all organically managed animals and edibles produced on your farm.

Secondly, you should get in touch with an accredited certifying agent who can answer questions specific to your operation and help you through your transition. Lastly, get your hands on the NOP program handbook and start reading.

If you're 100% ready to go certified organic, and are interested in reading an entire how-to guide, see Steps to USDA Organic Certification.

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