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Drought parches pastures on organic dairies

Issue Date: January 29, 2014
By Ching Lee
Organic dairy cows feed on hay in this Sonoma County pasture. If dry conditions persist, farmers who raise organic livestock say they may not be able to meet minimum pasture requirements under the National Organic Program.
Photo/Steven Knudsen

As the state's drought continues to take its toll on rangeland conditions, those who raise organic livestock say they may not be able to meet minimum pasture requirements if Mother Nature does not provide the rainfall needed to grow enough grasses.

Rules under the National Organic Program require dairy farmers and ranchers to graze their animals for at least 120 days during the grazing season and for their animals to receive at least 30 percent of their feed, or dry matter intake, from pasture.

In most years, that would not be a problem for Sonoma County organic dairy farmer Doug Beretta, whose region typically receives enough rain that he's able to exceed the 120-day pasture requirement. But the lack of precipitation so far this season has made this practice less certain.

"For us, it's starting to get pretty scary," he said.

Usually by late January and early February, there's plenty of grass on pasture that Beretta is able to start cutting back on feeding hay and supplemental feeds, but right now there's nothing on the ground for the cows to eat, he said. His silage crop also has not grown much since it was planted in November and it could all die back if it doesn't get some moisture soon, he noted.

Another concern is the lack of irrigation water, which comes from the city of Santa Rosa in the form of recycled wastewater. Because of severely low water storage levels, Beretta said he will have no supply this spring to irrigate his feed crops.

Jake Lewin, president of certification services at California Certified Organic Farmers, the largest organic certifier in the state, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National Organic Program, has had to issue several "temporary variances" on the pasture rule due to drought and other natural disasters since the rule's implementation in 2010.

Those variances, he noted, included reducing the dry matter intake requirement from 30 percent to 15 percent and scaling back the 120-day pasture rule to 80 days. Depending on the circumstances, the temporary variances could apply to nonirrigated pasture only or irrigated and nonirrigated pasture. The length of time for which the variances would take effect also could vary, depending on the severity of the natural disasters.

Usually, a state organic program or a certifying agent such as CCOF will request the variance, Lewin said, and then USDA would decide on the scope and degree of the variance. He said USDA has been more inclined to approve a requested variance if a drought or other natural disaster has been officially recognized by the state or by USDA, noting that the governor's recent drought declaration has helped to "solidify the necessity" of a variance.

Lewin said CCOF will work with its producers to determine if a variance should be requested and he expects the organization will make a decision in the next few months, "when it's clear that rainfall levels are conclusively very low as the winter passes."

Once a variance is approved, certifiers are required to notify the operations they certify and then track and provide information back to the National Organic Program about which operations, and how many, made use of the variance, Lewin said.

"In my experience, we've seen the National Organic Program and USDA be fairly responsive with regard to the variances around drought issues," he said. "But drought conditions have a tremendous effect on producers beyond simply the pasture rule. We're very concerned about all growers in terms of their ability to make a living."

Because of the widespread nature of this drought, Lewin said if organic dairy farmers are unable to pasture their animals and are forced to buy more feed, supplies will become very expensive or unavailable.

"And that starts to move from an organic-standards issue to simply a survival issue," he said.

With more dairies transitioning to organic in his region, Beretta said competition for organic hay, which he buys from Oregon, has intensified in recent years. The drought will further tighten supplies, he said, as conventional dairy farmers also will be trying to buy "whatever hay they can get their hands on."

Current strong milk prices are further driving up demand for hay, as conventional dairy farmers have more incentive to market milk, said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen. But lack of rain has shortened this year's alfalfa crop, he noted, so conventional producers may be buying more hay from out of state.

"With the price of diesel, it's not inexpensive to do that, but at the same time, you have to have that alfalfa in your ration," he said.

Jim Regli, an organic dairy farmer in Humboldt County, said while he has enough hay at the moment, he's worried about supplies getting tighter because Oregon hay growers in the Klamath Basin also are experiencing dry conditions and won't be growing as much hay.

Another big concern is wells going dry and not being able to irrigate in the summer, Regli said. If he can't irrigate his fields, he will have to buy more hay, driving up his production costs.

Dennis Leonardi, who also runs an organic dairy in Humboldt County, said his region normally gets plenty of rain in the spring and he hopes a good amount will still arrive in the coming months to get grasses growing. For now, he said most organic dairy farmers have contracted their feed, have silage in their barns and should be able to stretch those supplies into spring, when they start pasturing their cows again.

"Looking forward and having to replace that feed supply, there's no security," he said. "Until the season is completely over, I hate to over-anticipate calamity, but it's not looking good."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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