The USDA’s organic certification program is the gold standard when it comes to ensuring the quality of your food. An act of Congress sets the organic standards, and a 3rd party verifies compliance with the standards annually. Organic food is produced without artificial hormones, antibiotics or persistent pesticides, and is always non-GMO.

As a certified organic cooperative, Organic Valley is proud to uphold the integrity of organic food. The co-op has helped to shape the standards of organic since its founding in 1988. Organic Valley continues to push the industry toward the true philosophy of organic: farming in harmony with nature.

Brown cows look inquisitively at the camera while on pasture

Organic Valley is committed to upholding the highest standards of animal welfare. The current National Organic Program (NOP) rules are vague regarding this topic. The program requires that animals be raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behavior.” These requirements can be (and are) interpreted in myriad ways. Happily for our animals, Organic Valley believes – and has since its beginning – that the heart of organic includes the respectful and humane treatment of all animals. And so the co-op has established its own set of animal welfare guidelines that clarify and expand upon the NOP. Experts write our standards, farmers approve and implement them, and animal care specialists monitor them.

In order to find out more about Organic Valley’s animal welfare standards, I spoke with two of the cooperative’s experts: Meggan Hain, animal care specialist, and Kelsey Murphy, animal care coordinator.

How does Organic Valley create its animal welfare standards?

Meggan Hain: We do work fairly closely with our farmers, asking, “What makes sense on these farms?” The farmers give their input, and we also look at the science. It’s all about finding that balance that leads to the best welfare and what makes sense.

It is a conversation, and that’s the difference between our standards and others’. In some programs, it’s a lot heavier on the science side, and not so much on the farmer conversation side.

One thing that is sometimes forgotten is that the farmers we are dealing with are professionals in their own right. They spend sometimes 90 hours a week working with these animals. They have a huge knowledge base and understand the organic farming industry very well.

Two farm girls play with piglets in the barn.

What sets Organic Valley’s animal welfare standards above and beyond the rest?

MH: We focus a lot on pasture and grazing for our dairy cows. The National Organic Program pasture rule requires 30% of dry matter intake [a cow’s feed] must come from pasture. They should also have at least 120 days on pasture during the grazing season. When we look at Organic Valley farms, our cows are getting around 60% of their dry matter intake from pasture. A lot of our farms are also above the minimum for length of time on pasture, on average about 150 days.

Kelsey Murphy: In the pasture season, cows don’t spend a lot of time indoors. They’re out in pasture. Even in the winter, we do require daily access to the outdoors, so they still have access to extra space.

As far as chickens, I think we do have more space outdoors for them. We require 5 square feet outdoors per bird. We also have stricter requirements for the number of access points located in the barn, so that chickens actually truly do see that there’s a door and they can go outside. That’s one of the things with the larger companies—they might have a door on each side of the barn, but when you’re talking about a barn that’s 100 or 200 feet long, and a little three-foot door—the chicken in the corner is never going to see that and go outside.

Free range pastured chickens on the Trussoni farm.

How has Organic Valley shown leadership in setting high standards for animal welfare?

KM: Two years ago now, the USDA published the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) program, which was their update to further define what it means to be organic [with respect to animal welfare]. We don’t know what’s going to happen with that—it’s very possible it might get scratched and just go away.

MH: We had a lot to do with the OLPP, in developing that and saying, “These are things we feel need to be fixed” as far as where organic is going and animal welfare. Particularly looking at poultry and allowing more access to the outdoors, we’re saying this is essential within the philosophy of organic—but because the rules are flexible or unclear, a lot of companies can break the rules, and have been. As a cooperative, our philosophy has always been to work with the OLPP. We want to bring the whole industry forward, because the integrity of organic is essential to us.

OLPP took a long time to develop and was finally published on January 19th, 2017. The challenge, though, is that was within 60 days of the change of administration, so it meant it was open to being retracted. So it was retracted and they decided to take another look at it and open it up to public input again.

KM: In the poultry or dairy pool, or egg pool, or beef and pork, we’re already meeting 99% OLPP standards, whether they get passed or not. We’re fully in support of them because we’re already doing it.