Jersey cows at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vt., lounge on a deep-bedded pack of straw, their cold- weather alternative to pasture during New England’s severe winters.
Jersey cows at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vt., lounge on a deep-bedded pack of straw, their cold- weather alternative to pasture during New England’s severe winters. Photo by Lisa McCrory

Livestock Systems

Traditionally, livestock have played an important role in integrated operations and fit well in organic farming systems. Livestock feed on forages and grasses, essential elements of organic rotations, and provide manure, an important organic fertilizer. Although semi-confined livestock systems are allowed under the federal organic rules, the animals must be given access to fresh air, sunlight and the outdoors. Most organically raised animals do have access to the outdoors and pasture, and spend limited time in confinement. Organic confinement systems are typically less crowded than conventional confinement operations. (For more information, see NCAT's Organic Livestock Guide, available for free.)

At the core of many organic livestock systems is the grazing system. Animals forage on pastures for their own feed while spreading manure, yielding energy and labor savings, and reduced equipment costs. Composed of legumes, grasses and other broadleaf species, pastures provide multiple benefits for the soil and ecosystem as well.

"The fibrous roots of the grasses in perennial pastures hold soils in place and help reduce soil erosion," said Heather Karsten, assistant professor of crop and soil science at Penn State University, who has researched pasture management and rotational grazing systems in both New Zealand and the U.S. "When the roots and stubble of the grazed grass die back, they contribute organic matter to the soil. These improvements in organic matter from the grasses, as well as the legumes, help improve water infiltration, soil structure and nutrient accumulation and storage."

Nick Maravell, who has been farming organically since 1979, branched into beef not long after he increased his Buckeystown, Md., operation to 165 acres in 1997. "When I expanded, it just made sense to become more diversified," said Maravell, who was already growing organic forages, hay and grains. "When you have animals, you complete the cycle of feeding the vegetative matter through the rumen, and it comes out the other end to fertilize the soil."

Maravell, who pastures a small herd of Black Angus on 16 acres, also likes the additional flexibility. "The cattle can be used in different ways," he said, "by sending in the cows to cull the crops - rye, barley, alfalfa, or even soybeans, when green - if you decide you don't want to harvest them."

Although pastured animals are not necessarily organic, and some organic producers do not extensively pasture their livestock, organic growers can capitalize on the benefits of grass-raised animals by marketing their product as "grass-fed" as well as organic.

Maravell feeds no grain to his cattle and grows all his own grass and hay on his farm. The lack of grain means that his animals do not have high intra-muscular fat - which fetches a higher USDA rating than the lower fat meat - "but," he said, "my customers want this beef because it is grass-fed and organic. They've seen articles documenting the benefits, and they don't want antibiotics, hormones or pesticides, all of which you eliminate when you raise animals organically." Maravell, who sells direct to his customers, added that another benefit of pasture-raised beef are the higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids.

"There is good evidence that conjugated linoleic acid can prevent cancer in animals and may protect against heart disease and diabetes and obesity in humans, while omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to decrease the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease," said Donald Beitz, a Professor of Animal Science and Biochemistry at Iowa State University.

Beitz, who collaborated on a SARE-funded study in Iowa on the effects of pasturing animals, added that CLA levels can be 4 to 6 times higher in the milk of cattle who feed on fresh pasture versus cattle who eat stored feed such as silage hay and grain. Karsten, the Penn State researcher, also found that the eggs of pastured poultry had three times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of vitamins A and E than did the eggs of conventionally fed poultry.

Managing good health for organic livestock presents challenges since no antibiotics or hormones may be used. (See "National Organic Standards"). In general, the focus on animal health is preventive, and the incidences of diseases typical to animals in confinement can be reduced or mitigated by pasturing the animals, focusing on good nutrition and providing preventative care.

According to Karsten, there is evidence that the health of pastured animals is better. "Since the animals are not standing on cement, they have fewer foot and leg problems, the fresh air reduces respiratory problems and the incidence of mastitis is decreased since the animals are not lying in their own manure in the barn."

Dairy farmers also successfully manage their herds without the use of the standard conventional treatments. "Some people believe that you must use penicillin or manage dry cow treatment with antibiotics, but organic farmers don't add anything for dry cow treatment," said Lisa McCrory, the dairy technical assistance coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). "If a cow does get mastitis, homeopathic methods and colostrum products work well."

Focusing on animal nutrition through high quality feed and good soils also goes a long way toward reducing stress, illness and the need to treat animals for medical problems, added McCrory.

Hubert Karreman, a veterinarian in Lancaster County, Pa., who has been treating organic dairy cows for almost 10 years, agreed that the incidence of many diseases is lower in organic and grazed herds. "But," he added, "just because you're using organic management does not mean you won't have health problems." He sees more pasture bloat and hoof punctures and abscesses in grazed animals, but also believes that preventive strategies such as probiotics (immune system builders), and homeopathy and botanical medicines can be used very successfully to manage and treat organic herds.

Many organic hog systems rely on deep straw, which, mixed with manure, provides heat in barns or hoop structures and reduces environmental concerns about waste storage and disposal.
Many organic hog systems rely on deep straw, which, mixed with manure, provides heat in barns or hoop structures and reduces environmental concerns about waste storage and disposal. Photo by Jerry DeWitt

Integrating Organic Crops and Livestock

Even if Darrell Parks didn't like working with pigs, he would still raise hogs on his 400-acre farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, if only for the manure. Parks' 50 sows provide manure that makes up a key part of his soil fertility program.

Parks, who raises organic corn, milo, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa, relies on nitrogen-fixing legume cover crops such as yellow clover, red clover and Austrian winter peas to amend the soil. But for areas in need of extra fertility, Parks spot-treats with hog manure, illustrating one of the benefits of his integrated crop/livestock farm.

"I've worked to better utilize farm-produced manure and cover crops, as well as a crop rotation and management system that allowed me to eliminate purchased fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides," said Parks, who received a SARE grant to hone his use of manure on cropland.

Parks especially likes how manure corrects micronutrient deficiencies in his soil. He regularly tests his soils, and then targets problem areas with a heavier application of manure.

Cover crops supply most of his nitrogen. Parks grows a legume cover crop in the winter, followed by a cash crop of milo or soybeans. Before planting, he'll treat the field with manure to ensure the cash crop will not lack nutrients.

At the root of Parks' system is increasing organic matter in the soil, which will improve water infiltration and soil structure. The cover crops help compensate for what Parks describes as "heavy" soils. He chooses cover crops such as sweet clover that break through compacted soil with their deep taproot and anticipates continued improvements in his soil structure as he continues to perfect his rotation.

"Back in the '20 and '30s, they did some of these things and had good systems in place, then fertilizer became cheap and everyone forgot about cover crops as a possible solution," he said. "I have some fairly tight, heavy soils, and this system provides a way to make those soils better over time."