GAP, Pa. — Organic dairy farmers could have another way of cashing in on a new, growing market for grass-fed milk.
Pennsylvania Certified Organic hopes to become what it says would be the first third-party certifier of 100 percent grass-fed milk in the country.
The certification would be made available to existing PCO-certified dairy farmers on top of their existing organic certification.
The proposed certification program was announced Feb. 1 at the organization’s winter standards meeting at the Gap Family Center.
Johanna Mirenda, policy director for Pennsylvania Certified Organic, said the proposed certification would fill a gap in that there is currently no national certification standard for milk advertised as grass-fed, whether it be organic or conventional.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service established a voluntary standard for grass-fed beef in 2007.
But Tim Joseph, who sits on the PCO standards committee, said the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the dairy industry, will deal with a grass-fed milk claim only if there is a complaint lodged against someone advertising it as such.
To achieve the grass-fed certification, a producer would have to prove that all its animals’ dry matter intake was derived from pasture or stored forage.
Corn or other small grains wouldn’t be allowed, unless fed in their “pre-grain” states. Other nonforage feeds wouldn’t be allowed, and a producer would have three years to get all replacement animals from another certified grass-fed herd.
“This standard is really about consumers. It’s about what consumers want,” Joseph said, adding that the organization hopes to get the program in place to start certifying producers by the end of this year.
Mirenda said some producers already go beyond the required 30 percent dry matter intake standard set by the USDA’s National Organic Standards program and should have little trouble getting the optional certification.
“On the whole spectrum, we do have a subset of our producers that are above 80 percent, above 90 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture. So hopefully, those guys will be really keen on trying out this new certification program,” she said.
Dairy farmer Cliff Hawbecker, who owns two farms in Franklin and Cumberland counties, said he could benefit from a 100 percent grass-fed label since his entire herd has been fed all grass and forage for the past three years.
Getting to that point, though, was a much longer process that started in the early 2000s, when he started changing his operation from conventional to organic and decided to wean his animals from fermented feed.
“My first step was to reduce the grain. And then, because of the cow numbers we had and developing our pasture, we converted to pasture and imported corn silage as a winter feed,” Hawbecker said.
“And that was hardest to wean ourselves from because all my advisers, everybody, said it worked around corn silage, and I had to get rid of that,” he said. “Once I got rid of that, then we took off again.”
Another challenge was matching forage to the animal’s needs.
“That is one of the hardest things to really do as a dairy farmer, because we view the cow as the ultimate, and it’s the land,” he said. “If this was a chess game, the queen is the land and you protect that, build that.”
Hawbecker milks 300 cows, most of them three-way crosses of Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire, and he sells the milk to a local creamery, Trickling Springs Creamery, which he said specializes in processing milk from nonfermented feed.
Not feeding corn, he said, has cut overall production in half from the more than 20,000 pounds of milk his animals used to produce in the 1980s and ’90s, when he was feeding grain.
The flip side of it, though, is that he doesn’t have to spend money on bringing in grain.
“If you’re not going to feed any grain, you’ll easily lose half of your production from that. But you’re going to give up more than half of your expenses,” he said. “The net return is now I have a margin, something that I only wished to have before.”
Andy Batdorf, who chairs PCO’s standards committee and is an organic dairy farmer based in Mifflin County, said it could take three to five years or even longer for a transitioning dairy farmer to convert a herd to an all forage diet.
“The biggest problem is when a guy says, Tomorrow, I’m going to be 100 percent grass-fed.’ You’ve got genetics, you’ve got farming practices you need to change,” Batdorf said.
“Our biggest concern on the committee was that people decide tomorrow that they’re going to change and quit feeding grain,” he said. “And you have a cow, say a Holstein cow, that’s used to getting 10 to 15 pounds of grain, and you take her to nothing, she’s going to get skinny, she’s going to get sick.”
Most milk and dairy products labeled grass-fed can be found only in small, specialty stores. Organic Valley last spring launched its own 100<@keystone nobold> <@$p>percent grass-fed milk, which is sold in Whole Foods stores on the West Coast.
Dave Eyster, who works in the organic division for Dairy Marketing Services, said marketing grass-fed milk on the East Coast could work in small areas where a market already exists for it, where there are enough dairy farmers producing it and an existing plant is nearby.
“I think the grass-fed may be able to work, but in the current market climate, maybe just in certain geographic areas where there is a plant maybe in one location and that plant is willing to do grass-fed,” Eyster said. “There definitely would be some challenges.”