Introduction to Organic Dairy Farming

eOrganic author:

Jim Pierce, Oregon Tilth


Welcome to eOrganic's organic dairy pages! Here, a team of university experts, extension and other educators, organic farmers, veterinarians, and consultants have worked together to provide you—as a  farmer, consumer or educator—with accurate, up-to-date, and relevant information on organic dairy production. This site includes articles on the following topics.

Cows grazing
Cows grazing. Photo credit: Lisa McCrory, Earthwise Farm and Forest.

Brief History of Organic Dairy

The organic farming movement is commonly agreed to have begun in the 1940s in England with the writings of Sir Albert Howard, who learned about organic practices in India during the 1920s. In the U.S., the birth of the organic movement is commonly credited to J.I. Rodale.

The reasons for producing and purchasing organic food are individual and can be complex. However, most will fall into three categories: health, community, and environment. Since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, there has been a growing concern about the conventional agricultural paradigm that relies on synthetic inputs to maximize yields; poses threats to the environment; and disconnects farmers, the land, and their communities.

The organic movement is built on a fundamental principle: healthy soils lead to healthy crops, healthy animals, healthy humans, and a healthy planet. Organic crop and livestock production focuses on building soil organic matter and biology to create a sustainable, dynamic environment for producing healthy food and feed. Organic agriculture is also seen as a way to sustain and support family farms in preference to faceless, ever-expanding mega- and corporate farm models.

Whereas organic fruits, vegetables, grains, and some livestock have long been mainstays of the organic movement, organic dairy is a relative newcomer. Organic dairy surged into the organic marketplace in the 1990s, establishing itself as a major category. The success of organic dairy can largely be attributed to several critical events, including a response to Monsanto's introduction in 1994 of genetically modified or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The proliferation of rBGH use—coupled with increased consumer awareness of genetically modified corn, soybean, and other crops treated with an array of synthetic pesticides being fed to livestock; the feeding of slaughter by-products to ruminants and concerns about mad cow disease; and the increased use of synthetic medications including hormones, antibiotics, and steroids—have encouraged many consumers to seek organic dairy products. These consumers have come to rely on the assurances of certified organic dairy as a trusted source of unadulterated dairy products.

At the same time, the organization and marketing efforts of producers and manufacturers of organic foods have established an infrastructure and market presence that makes high-quality organic dairy products available, affordable, and desirable in both specialty natural- and mass-market groceries. Organic dairy products are often viewed as "gateway products", in that consumers will make their first forays into organic purchasing by buying organic dairy products, eventually increasing their allegiance to organic products as they become increasingly food savvy.

Defining Organic Dairy

Since the advent of the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) in October 2002, organic farming and labeling have become greatly unified in the United States. Prior to that, private and state certifiers oversaw a myriad of variable organic standards. Now, all products sold as “organic” in the U.S. must be produced, handled, and processed according to a single standard—the NOP “Final Rule” (USDA, 2000).

It is important to understand that organic farming is a system of production, a set of goal-based regulations that allow farmers to manage their own particular situations individually, while maintaining organic integrity. It is also important to understand that the National Organic Program is relatively new. Even as the program matures, however, there are assurances inherent to all USDA-certified organic dairy products. These include the following.

  • Cows and calves are fed 100% organic feed.
  • Organic crops, hay, and pasture are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that have not been carefully screened and approved for organic use.
  • Non-natural feed additives and supplements such as vitamins and minerals must also be approved for use in organic.
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs, called “Excluded Methods” in the regulation) are strictly forbidden.
  • Land used to grow organic crops must be free of all prohibited materials for at least three years prior to the first organic harvest.
  • Synthetic milk replacers are prohibited. Calves must be fed organic milk.
  • All animals must have access to the outdoors, weather permitting. Animals over six months of age must have access to pasture during the growing season.
  • Only approved health care products can be used. Many of these are restricted in how and when they can be used. Antibiotics are not allowed.
  • Organic animals may not be fed ANY slaughter by-products, urea, or manure.
  • The welfare of the animals must be attended to. Certain procedures, such as tail docking, are prohibited. Other procedures, such as dehorning, must be done so as to minimize the stress to the animal.
  • An organic farmer must keep sufficient records to verify his or her compliance with the standards.
  • Each farm is inspected and audited every year. Any farm can be inspected unannounced at any time.

The most up-to-date text of the NOP final rule can be found, via the NOP website, on the electronic Code of Federal Regulations website. A complete explanation of requirements for organic dairy and livestock can be found at: Organic Dairy Certification: Why, How, What?

Starting Organic Dairy Production

If you are are a dairy farmer considering transitioning to organic, there are a few things that we would like to stress as you climb in.

First, Find a Mentor or Two

You should not and do not have to start, or transition to, organic production alone. The organic dairy movement has grown significantly in the past ten-plus years, creating an infrastructure and network of support. These pages will provide you with experiences from other farmers, as well as link you to resources from universities, non-government organizations, milk-marketers, and certification agencies, all of which can connect you to other producers in your geographic area. The education gained from your contemporaries is extremely valuable. (It is important to understand that organic certification agencies and their inspectors are prohibited under the regulations from giving advice in order to overcome a specific noncompliance. They can and do, however, readily direct their clients toward resources where they can find answers and information.)

A New Paradigm

While organic farming overtly rejects the so-called "modern miracles" of synthetic chemical farming, including GMO technology, and a single-minded focus on maximized yields, it is not a return to pre-industrial farming practices. Advances in alternative cultivation methods and medical treatments, coupled with a sophisticated understanding of biology, animal nutrition, and soil science, have advanced organic farming practices. Still, the decision to switch to certified organic farming can be intimidating. Perhaps the most difficult adjustment for new organic farmers is the fact that you will find yourself forming new relationships. To varying degrees, organic farmers find themselves drifting away from long-established suppliers in order to find new seed- and input providers, new buyers, different people to discuss and troubleshoot problems, and perhaps a different veterinarian. While these changes can be intimidating, they are often exciting and invigorating. The pages of organic farm journals are full of testimonials from farmers who began their organic journey reluctantly, but who soon found themselves back in tune with their soil, their animals, and their love of farming.

Choosing Your Certifier

There are about fifty-five certification agencies in the United States that have been accredited by the USDA to certify farms to the NOP standards. Although the NOP has served to coalesce organic regulations, the practices and paperwork among certifiers still vary somewhat. Take your time in choosing the certifier with whom you will work, because you are establishing a relationship that will last a long time. Talk with your organic neighbors and mentors to determine their satisfaction with the services provided by their certification agencies. One section of this website—Organic Dairy Certification: Why, How, and What?—will provide you with additional information and resources to assist you in the important task of preparing for organic certification.

Learning is a life-long process, and the transition to organic farming is certainly no exception. As you explore this website, you will find information ranging in complexity from broad-brush overview to drill-down detail. Take your time, soak it up, and explore. It will become obvious that the organic farming community is open, transparent, and sharing. If someone does not know the answers to a particular conundrum, they can usually refer you to someone who does. A lot of those "someones" have teamed up to build the eOrganic website, including this section on Organic Dairy.

References and Citations


Published January 16, 2009

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.