Ask questions, plan ahead for successful transition to organic dairy


By Sarah Flack – published in the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service Broadcaster fall 2015

Dairy farmers making the transition to organic production today have some advantages over farmers who did so in the past. Organic farms now have a wider array of approved health care products, more sources of soil amendments and a greatly improved variety of organic seeds. There is better access to veterinarians and soil/crop specialists with knowledge of organic practices, and more organic farming peers to learn from. There are also an increasing number of markets for organic fluid milk, and the organic milk pay price tends to be stable compared to conventional milk prices.

BOX: Average price of organic milk in August 2015 was $35-36/cwt. Sources: Organic Valley and Westby Cooperative Creamery

There still can be challenges along the transition path. In a few regions of the U.S. it is difficult to find an organic milk market. The organic regulations and record keeping requirements for dairy farmers can seem complicated, and the transition process can be expensive. It is also still possible to get incorrect information on the organic standards if you ask the wrong person, and in some areas, it may be challenging to find knowledgeable advisors. Additionally, there are many new organic livestock health care products, and it can take some effort to learn which ones are allowed under organic standards and which are actually effective.

To make a successful transition and get certified organic, it pays to ask the right questions ahead of time, come up with a plan, and know the costs before starting. This article will go over some of the key points to consider about transitioning to organic.


Key Questions

Before starting the certification or transition process, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you sure someone will buy the organic milk once the transition is complete? Certification does not guarantee a market.
  • Will the organic milk buyers help with the cost of transition if you sign a contract with them?
  • Which certifier you will use? Become familiar with the organic standards, transition process and timeline.
  • Will your record-keeping system meet organic requirements?
  • What fertilizers, seeds, minerals, forage and seed inoculants and health care products can you use?
  • How much money will you need during transition? In addition to more expensive organic grain, the farm may also require a better winter outdoor access area, and fence or lanes to improve pastures.


Good Match for Organic

The ease with which a dairy farm can be transitioned to organic varies depending on the details of a farm—the herd, feed sources and land base. Step one in the transition process is assessing the farm to see if it is a good candidate for certified organic dairy production. It is also important to look at how much the transition will cost and the different transition timelines and options.

Farms already using organically approved health care products and management practices will have an easier and less costly transition with a lower cull rate. Farms that already have well managed grazing systems and are growing crops using organic management and inputs will also find the transition less challenging.

Transitioning a conventional confinement operation to certified organic can be done successfully. However setting up a new grazing system takes additional time, money and requires converting cropland near the milking facility to pasture. Rations will need to be changed, and the herd will take some time to adjust to a new system. These farms will need to spend money on pasture seeding, new cow lanes, pasture water systems and fence.

Conventional herds managed using a significant amount of hormones to breed cows, antibiotics to treat or prevent illness, treated milk replacer or medicated calf grain also face a more challenging transition. However, by working closely with a good veterinarian to create a preventive health care plan, and some careful culling and breeding, a successful transition can be done.

For farms in northern climates, it is also important to make sure there is outdoor access available during the non-grazing season for all animals over 6 months of age. This may require building new housing or barnyard areas, which must be managed to prevent any water contamination from runoff.

Organic standards require that the land be managed organically for at least three years, and the herd be managed organically and fed 100 percent organic feed for 12 months prior to certification. Purchased feed must be certified organic—this is the largest part of the transition cost for many farms.

            Many organic milk buyers are paying transition incentive payments or a bonus. These usually don’t cover all the costs, but can be very helpful with the monthly grain bill or big infrastructure expenses. The most important reason to find a milk buyer before starting the transition is that being certified does not guarantee a milk market! The demand for organic milk varies from year to year and regionally. Get a contract before spending money on the transition.


Certification Agency

Once the decision is made to transition, you’ll need to choose a certifier. Ask some nearby organic dairy farmers who their certifier is, what the cost is, and if they are happy with them. There are quite a few certifiers to choose from, and each manages certification and pricing differently. The Organic Resource Directory, published by MOSES, lists certification agencies. The searchable online database is at There also is a list of organic certifiers on the National Organic Program (NOP) website: This website also has a full copy of the organic standards and other information.

BOX: For help choosing a certification agency, get the MOSES Organic Fact Sheet “How to Choose a Certification Agency & the Organic Certification Process” free from under the Publications tab. This fact sheet is #4 under “Business & Education.”

Transition timing, steps and costs can vary among certifiers. Contact a certification agency and begin the process of certifying the land and livestock as early as possible. The agency will send you its guidelines and fee information, as well as application forms. The certifier may require a visit by an inspector to determine if you are ready to begin the transition process, which may involve an additional fee. But some certifiers won’t send an inspector to the farm until late in the final transition year. The more prepared the farm is for that first inspection, the better the chances of successfully getting certified.


Organic Standards: Land

The National Organic Standards require a three-year transition period when no prohibited materials (pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, treated seed) may be used on the land. During transition, the seed you use doesn’t need to be organic, but it cannot be genetically engineered or treated. Save seed labels and invoices to show your certifier. Fields where treated seed was used will have to restart the three-year transition. Even though organic seed isn’t required, it’s a good idea to trial some varieties during transition so you become familiar with what’s available.

Fertilizers must be natural (non-synthetic) materials such as mined rock powders or manure. Before using a fertilizer or other material, first ask your certifier if it is allowed. If a prohibited material is applied to the field even by accident, it is likely that the three-year transition will have to be restarted for that field.

Keep records of crop harvest and all inputs. Labels and invoices will prove to the certifier that all the materials you used are approved.

The year you will harvest your first organic crop, you must have a buffer zone between that crop and adjacent fields that are not managed organically to protect your organic crop from chemical drift. The size of the buffer will depend on how the adjacent fields are used.


Organic Standards: Livestock

            The National Organic Standards require a 12-month transition period for livestock. During that time, all feed must be certified organic, and feed supplements, minerals, salt blocks, medications, health management practices, and livestock housing must meet organic standards. There is an allowance for farmers to use their own feed grown on their own land in its third year of transition in addition to certified organic feed. This homegrown feed may only be fed during the 12-month livestock transition period, and may not be fed to any animals already certified.

Because of the high cost of buying organic feed during the transition year, some farms decide not to transition the whole lactating dairy herd. Instead they sell the dairy herd and buy an organic herd or transition a group of heifers so they don’t need to buy so much organic grain. There are pros and cons to each option; each farm will need to decide which transition plan is the best fit.

In the grazing season, at least 30 percent of the total dry matter fed to all animals over 6 months must come from pasture. This is actually not much pasture—most well managed grazing systems will provide well over 30 percent. Feeding records and a written grazing plan with maps are required to prove this to the certifier. During the non-grazing season, livestock must have outdoor access. There are exemptions that allow producers to keep animals indoors temporarily during winter or off pasture in the grazing season. These exemptions are allowed in specific situations like inclement weather, risk to soil and water quality, healthcare treatment, breeding, and milking.

During the transition year and once certified, all health care practices and materials must meet organic standards. Some certifiers will provide farms with a list of allowed health care products. All products must be approved for use before using them. When it comes to organic certification, ask for permission not forgiveness!

Farms are required to have an animal ID system and up-to-date herd list. They must keep records on herd health as well as all feeds made, purchased and actually fed to the herd. When purchasing organic feed, all invoices and a copy of the organic certificate for feeds must be kept to show the certifier. Minerals and feed supplements need to be pre-approved by the certifier, and the labels kept.



The first inspection will take place two to four months before your first organic milk shipment. It will include a visit to all the fields, pastures, buildings and animals. The inspector will look at livestock health care records as well as sales and purchase receipts for livestock, health care products, feed and supplements, pest products, teat dips and cleaning products, milk, and crop records of seed used, harvests, and fertilizer and manure spreading. Pasture and feeding records need to verify that all animal groups meet the pasture requirement. Housing records need to show that all animals over 6 months have daily outdoor access during the non-grazing season.

The inspector’s job is to verify that the farm is operating according to the information provided by the farmer in the application. It is not the inspector’s job to make the certification decision—inspectors actually are prohibited from giving advice that may help the farm overcome potential barriers to certification.

At the end of your farm inspection, the inspector will do an “exit interview.” This is when they provide a list of any potential non-compliance issues that came up during the inspection. The inspector then returns the application and a report to the certifier. The certifier then makes a decision on certification of the farm.

Once a farm is certified, the farmer must notify the certifier before making any management changes, adding new fields or using a new product. Every farm is inspected yearly, and certifiers may do additional residue testing for prohibited materials and unannounced inspections.


Certification Cost Share

The National Organic Program provides reimbursement for certification-related expenses to help farmers maintain organic certification. Farmers can apply for payments of up to 75 percent of certification costs with a maximum of $750 per certification category (crops, livestock, processing, or wild harvest). The application period typically runs from September through November. The program is managed through state departments of agriculture. For details, see

Minnesota also supports farmers who are transitioning to organic by paying part of the cost to work with a USDA-accredited organic certifying agency during the transition period. The maximum payment is $750 per year for three years or until they achieve organic certification, whichever comes first.

While the transition and certification process aren’t easy, farmers who have successfully made it through say it was worth it. Having access to a more stable pay price makes financial planning easier. In addition many farmers say that after a few years of good organic management, they have become better managers and the results show in improved forage quality and healthy productive dairy herds.


Sarah Flack is a consultant specializing in grass-based and organic livestock production. She is the author of Organic Dairy Production, co-author of The Organic Dairy Handbook and Transitioning to Organic Dairy – a Self-Assessment Workbook. Her website is