ArticleVolume Number July 16, 2019

Demystifying the transition to organic milk production

Démystifier la transition à la production laitière biologique_Page_1

This article appeared in the July 2019 edition of Progressive Dairy magazine - IN FRENCH 


This is the first of three articles in an « Organic Milk Production 101 » series that aims to describe the initial steps in the transition to certified organic milk production in the following areas: soil and crops, feeding grass and forages, animal welfare and exercise, disease prevention and health.

Making the transition from conventional to organic milk production can be a considerable challenge. Introducing and making changes to multiple practices can leave producers feeling insecure. Many herds of all sizes have demonstrated that the best way to ensure a successful transition is to be prepared. Proper preparation may mean attending training sessions, visiting certified producers or consulting advisors who specialize in organic production. Taking these steps one at a time and demystifying the practices that needed to be put in place enabled these producers to make a successful transition.

Let's look at the key practices that need to be put into place in order to successfully make the transition to organic milk production.

Soil and Crops

It is essential that soils have good drainage and are treated with lime. One of the basic principles for all crops is to ensure that the biological activity of the soil is optimal, and this is especially crucial in organic production. The choice of crop rotations is also very important as it can improve soil fertility, and prevent disease and weed problems. For example, the incorporation of legumes in a short stand rotation will discourage quack grass infestations. The crop residues from a nitrogen-rich stand of legumes would also be beneficial. Finally, it is essential to get training and gather information on mechanical weeding equipment and techniques during the mandatory three years transition period for soils.

Feeding Grass and Forages

Organic standards require that forages make up of a minimum of 60 percent of a ruminant’s ration. Producing quality forage that can provide the majority of the protein and energy in the ration is therefore imperative. This organic standard is based on the principle that it is a ruminant‘s nature to feed on forages. It highlights their unique ability to transform feeds, which are inedible for humans, such as forages, into products of high nutritive value. With the price of organic concentrates being two to three times higher, it is essential that concentrates be used optimally.

It is mandatory to provide pasture for herbivores in organic dairy production. Producers must provide a minimum of 30 percent of the forage ration in the form of grazed grass for dairy cattle and even more than 30 percent when grass is abundant. Animals must become accustomed to grazing, and producers must be proficient at managing pasture. If this type of management is new to the farm, it is important to take advantage of the three-year transition period to gradually get the animals used to being outside and learn that the grass is good to eat. It is always surprising to see animals that have never had the opportunity to graze learn to do so in just a matter of days. A pasture rotation system must be put into place for the cows in milk, the dry cows and the younger animals starting at nine months old. A grazing plan is an invaluable tool for proper provision planning and can facilitate the transition to this system, and help with effective feed control during the grazing season. On farms with robot milking systems, pasture can be used effectively without affecting the efficiency of the system. Incidentally, a large number of free stall organic herds have robot milking systems.

Animal Welfare and Exercise

Animal welfare is one of the core of principles of organic farming, and many standards have been put into place to ensure that this principle is applied. One of the best examples is a standard in the animal health care section, which states: « All appropriate medications must be used in such a way that livestock can regain their health if authorized methods of organic production fail. » Some practices are mandatory to avoid or ease animal suffering. For example, when dehorning, it is mandatory for calves to receive long-acting local anaesthetics.

Several standards concerning minimum space per animal have been set for calf pens, bedded areas and calving pens in order to prevent disease and reduce stress. Exercise is a priority for all animals. With the exception of milking cows, for which tie stall housing is still permitted, all other animals must be in free stall housing. Even the cows that are in tie stall housing must have two periods of exercise per week when they are not at pasture. By 2030, it will be entirely prohibited to use tie stall housing for cows in milk.

Disease Prevention and Health

Animal health is the priority for many organic production standards. Prevention is always the preferred approach, not only to prevent the animals from becoming sick, but also to avoid having to treat animals when the choice of veterinary health products is more limited than with conventional production. For example, the preventative use of antibiotics or anti-parasitics is prohibited. These products are only permitted as a last resort when alternative methods have proven ineffective. When this is the case, stricter milk withdrawal periods must be enforced.

Preventative methods are essential in organic production and are a gauge of success. The typical example is mastitis and somatic cells. When a preventative strategy is in place, year after year, organic producers are able to successfully keep their SCC below 200,000.


A pre-certification inspection is carried out during the last year of the transition period. Thereafter, there are annual inspections and surprise inspections are always a possibility. Animal records are kept in the same manner as required for conventional production. If not the case already, field records must be kept to monitor crops. Inspection costs vary according to farm size and are usually between $1,500 and $2,000 per year for an average farm.

Strategic planning for the sector has set the objective of doubling organic milk production within seven years (2017-2024); it is clear that additional producers will be required to reach this objective. After two years, results show that this ambitious objective is on track. To continue in the right direction, new farms must begin this three-year transition every year. This is the challenge that the organic dairy production sector has to overcome!