Forage self sufficiency key element in whether or not Certified Organic production will be more profitable than conventional

Staff report

DENVER, Colo: Certified Organic ruminant meat and milk production has the potential to significantly increase farmer and rancher incomes as long as purchased inputs can be kept to a minimum.

While Certified Organic meat and milk currently bring a considerable premium both in the store at retail and at the farm gate to the producer, Certified Organic inputs are equally costly.

This can result in a “money swap” that results in no net increase in profitability to the farmer or rancher. Colorado grassfed lamb producer, Richard Parry, said he had his ranch and sheep organically certified primarily for the market protection it offered.

“I am following Warren Buffett’s advice to build a castle with a moat and to stock the moat with crocodiles.”

While primarily a direct-marketer, Parry said he found the organic label to be a great help in separating him from competitors at farmers’ markets.

“Very few people recognize the significance of grassfed or grass finished and are confused by the true meaning of these words.”

He said he started out with an “all natural” label but that this was totally meaningless as to any enforced standard.

“I did some research and found that Certified Organic products typically sell for 60% more than commodity products.

“And, I like getting the highest price.”

He said a Certified Organic grass farm or ranch was really a three part whole.

These three parts were:

1. Organic pasture and hay.

2. Organic livestock.

3. Organically certified abattoir.

However, he said it is not necessary to have all three certified to benefit from Organic Certification.

“Many direct marketers find a label that claims the livestock is ‘raised on Certified Organic pasture’ to be nearly as valuable as complete organic certification.”

This decision can extend to livestock species as well.

On his ranch, Parry certifies his sheep but not the goats and cattle that also graze there.

Parry said that over the last 30 years he has shifted from a 1500 ewe, herded, forest-range flock to a 500 acre, fully irrigated, intensively subdivided, ryegrass and white clover, grass finishing ranch.

He said his ranch’s soil organic matter had risen from 1.5 when he was making hay to 3.5 under intensive grazing.


Parry recommended that a grazier have five things in place before becoming a Certified Organic grass finisher.

These were:

1. Irrigation to make grass production seasonally reliable.

2. A forage chain to minimize hay feeding and poor seasonal gains.

3. Minerally balanced soils for good legume growth.

4. Multiple species grazing to control internal parasites and weeds.

5. Pasture-friendly genetics.

He realized that he was going to have to eliminate as much purchased hay as possible as Certified Organic hay is very expensive to buy and he does not have the equipment to make his own.

After hearing Anibal Pordomingo speak in California two years ago, he went home and penciled out a forage chain for his ranch that included cereal rye and annual ryegrass for winter finishing and turnips for his ewes.

This allowed him to eliminate all hay feeding to his market lambs despite his ranch being above 7000 feet in the Rockies.

The forage chain also allowed a year around harvest of finished lambs.

“I know a lot of ranchers don’t like the idea of ‘farming’ but rawhide and romance just does not yield a quality meat product.”

Dr. Steven Atchley, the owner of Mesquite Organic Grassfed Beef agreed with Parry’s observation of the need to keep animals “on the gain” at all times.

Atchley said the current high prices being paid for poorly finished grassfed cattle were because grassfed meat marketers were hitting a target group of health-oriented consumers dead-on. These health-oriented consumers are very forgiving about the product’s eating quality.

“Unfortunately, this bullseye center is very, very small. We are going to have to improve the fat finish on our product to move out into the next ring of consumers.”

Atchley, who is a heart surgeon, said that unhealthy saturated fat came from an excess of energy in an animal’s diet.

He said this was not a problem with naturally low energy pasture.

“We need to be saying we have a product that is low in saturated fat rather than strictly emphasizing leanness.”


Argentine grazier/researcher Anibal Pordomingo said that energy (often called sugar) was indeed the limiting factor in all cool-season forages and legumes.

“It is very difficult to get over two pounds a day on fattening animals on alfalfa or white clover based pastures,” he said.

“However, such cool-season, leguminous pastures give us the longest annual production period of all forages and so we must use these as the basis of our forage chain.

“We then add annuals to fill the deficits in our base perennial pasture but these annuals seldom make up more than 30% of the total acreage.”

He said that while such a program produced well-finished organic beef for a cost (based upon University of Nebraska input cost figures) of around 23 cents a pound and a gain per acre on his personal unirrigated farm of 300 pounds. “A good target is three pounds of gain per acre per day from the entire farm,” Pordomingo said.

Pordomingo’s personal farm in Argentina is at the same latitude and rainfall as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Richard Parry said his ranch is on a tilled, Argentine-style rotation whereby the perennial pastures are turned under occasionally and run through an annual phase for two years.

This allows the winter annuals to be grown solely from the residual nitrogen left by the white clover.


Dr. Ann Wells, an organically oriented consulting veterinarian, echoed Parry’s advice about the need to be irrigated and largely forage self-sufficient before becoming Certified Organic.

She said she was a member of the Ozark Pasture Beef Co-op in Northwestern Arkansas.

This co-op has implemented a successful forage chain based around annual ryegrass and crabgrass that produces mostly high Select and Choice grade grass finished cattle.

She said all the cattle are quality graded and all Standards are ground for hamburger.

While the cattle are normally raised organically, she was thankful they weren’t Certified Organic during the severe 2005 drought because they totally ran out of grass and had to purchase considerable amounts of outside hay.

“Certified Organic hay would have not only been very expensive but virtually impossible to find in Arkansas,” she said.

Margaret Scoles, the executive director of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, said her personal ranch in Montana was not certified for the same reason.

“My husband does not want to be a grass farmer. He wants to be a cowboy.

“Consequently, we are very dependent upon bought in by-product feedstuffs to overcome the huge variations in forage production from year to year.

“With organic certification, traditional supplemental feedstuffs like beet pulp and molasses that we use are just not available.”

Scoles said that organic agriculture had largely been an industry created by consumer demand.

She said that it started with organic fruits and vegetables, then spread to corn and soybeans due to export demand, then to dairy due to RbGH, and now had come to beef.

She said grain fed organic was largely being produced by organic corn farmers trying to add value to their crops.

She said she thought that grassfed meats had the best chance of being the most profitable organic product because most producers were coming to it from a low-cost, low-input philosophy.

“If you can run them completely on grass, you’ll do just fine.”

Unfortunately, many organic producers can’t, don’t or won’t.


Ann Wells said poor animal nutrition is the number one health problem she sees on Certified Organic farms.

She said this under-feeding was largely related to the high cost of purchased feedstuffs and too little emphasis on pasture production.

“Green pasture will make most animal health problems totally disappear.

“To be a highly financially successful organic farmer you absolutely must minimize purchased inputs,” she said.

She said most farmers and ranchers thinking of going organic want an input substitution list of products they can buy.

“Organic farming and ranching is about preventing disease. Not treating it.”

The high prices of organic replacements also prevents farmers and ranchers from using their number one disease prevention tool - culling.

“Eighty percent of all parasite problems come from 20% of the animals. The best solution to this problem is to get rid of that 20%.”

She said she thought the three-year mandatory transition period was good as it gave farmers and ranchers time to transition to the new mindset organic production requires.

“You absolutely must come to the realization that any animal disease on your farm is your fault.”

Wells recommended that farmers and ranchers spend a couple of years running their operations “as if” they were organic to help with the mental transition and to discover any holes in their animal and pasture management.

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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