ATTRAnews - Newsletter of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

August-September, 2009
Volume 17, Number 4

Newsletter of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: A project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). This issue of ATTRAnews is available online.

Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Production

Many small- and mid-size livestock ranchers are looking for ways to differentiate their products in the marketplace. Consumer demand for grass-fed beef and dairy products is growing as people learn about the health benefits. Pasture-based production has many advantages for ranchers, for livestock, for communities and for ecosystems. In this issue, we compare the production standards of three commonly used grass-fed livestock labels.

In this issue:


What Do the Various Grass Fed Labels Stand for?

grazing cows
Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.

Jeff Schahczenski, NCAT Program Specialist

Label claims can create confusion for consumers and producers in niche beef markets. Producers are unsure about which new market will best serve their interests. Consumers find it difficult to understand how best to exercise their consumer vote. Compounding the confusion, the USDA offers several different label claims for meat.

Private entities are free to create any label claim they wish and can ask the USDA for authorization of a label claim. However, such label claims require ample documentation of the truth of the claim before it is granted. The use of such a claim opens the user to possible litigation if a competitor wishes to dispute the truthfulness of the claim.

Through a USDA program called the Process Verifi ed Program, private companies can also have their claims authenticated by an unbiased third party. This USDA-sanctioned label is not often used by alternative marketers of livestock because of the expense and the complex paperwork required for application. To learn more, see

Trade associations may create trademarks or label claims that members of their association can attach to their product. A good example of this approach to product differentiation is a label created by the American Grassfed Association (AGA). Learn more about the label at This association trademark is only for AGA members. It is a third-party verified trademark and the verification is done by the Food Alliance, Again, this label claim has to be approved by the USDA. Although this is a trade association trademark, any private entity could create a similar individual trademark. To learn more about these programs and related ATTRA studies, contact Jeff Schahczenski,, (406) 494-8636.

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Comparing Standards for Meat Production

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Grass Fed, American Grassfed Association, USDA National Organic Program

Summarized by NCAT program specialist Ann Baier

logo USDA AMS Grass Fed—2007 American Grassfed Association Grassfed Ruminant —2009 USDA National Organic Program (NOP) —2002
Verification or certification required ? Certification is not required to use a grass fed claim. The standard is voluntary. Certification to American Grassfed Association (AGA) standards is required in order to represent product using the American Grassfed Association logo and marks. Certification by a USDA-accredited certifier is required of all operations using the organic claim on label. Certification involves an application, Organic System Plan, recordkeeping and initial/annual inspections to verify compliance with National Organic Standards.
Feed, grazing, pasture requirement Animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season” (between the average dates of the last spring frost and the fi rst fall frost in the local area). “Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” Livestock must be on range, pasture or paddocks for their entire lives. Livestock must maintain living conditions to accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment; and pasture for ruminants.
Confinement Not addressed. Livestock must not be confined to a feedlot or other area where forages or crops are not grown during the growing season. They may be fed hay, haylage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources while on pasture in bad weather or when forage is poor. Animals cannot be fed stockpiled forage in confi nement for more than 30 days per year. Producers may provide temporary confinement for an animal because of inclement weather; the animal’s stage of production; conditions under which the health, safety, or well-being of the animal could be jeopardized; and risk to soil or water quality. Shelter must provide for comfort behaviors, exercise, and reduction of potential for injury.
Feed, definition of forage Forage is any edible herbaceous plant material that can be grazed or harvested for feeding, except grain. “The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g. legumes, brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.“ Forage is vegetative material in a fresh, dried, or ensiled state (pasture, hay, or silage) which is fed to livestock.
Acceptable supplemental feed Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage. Crops normally harvested for grain must be foraged or harvested in the pre-grain state. Any feed high (over 20%) in crude fiber and low (under 60%) in total digestible nutrients, on an air-dry basis. Must be from AGA list of approved feed materials. Total feed ration composed of agricultural products, including pasture and forage, that are certified to be organically produced.
Prohibited feed, additives, supplements; feed production practices Grain or grain by-products, cottonseed and cottonseed meal, soybean and soybean meal, non-protein nitrogen sources such as urea and animal by-products. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products (starch and protein sources), or any animal by-products. Non organic feed; animal drugs including growth hormones; feed supplements, additives more than needed for adequate health; plastic pellets for roughage; feed formulas containing urea or manure; mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products; feed, feed additives, and feed supplements violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Production practices for forage & feed (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) Not addressed. Not directly addressed. Crop production including pasture management must comply with USDA NOP standards for crop production. Prohibited are most synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, and all use of genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.
Milk, milk replacers Milk or milk replacer is allowed. Milk is allowed before weaning, but the source is not directly addressed. Organic mother’s milk or organic milk replacer is allowed.
Nutritional supplements Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may be included in the feeding regimen. Approved mineral and vitamin supplements may be provided free choice to adjust the animal’s nutrient intake. Supplements must be approved in advance by AGA. Approved: vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, fatty acids, energy sources, and fiber (ruminants). Feed supplements or additives must not exceed amounts needed for adequate health at animal’s specific stage of life.
Parasiticide use Not addressed. Not addressed. Parasiticides are not allowed in slaughter stock. Nonroutine use is allowed in breeder stock during the last third of gestation and in dairy stock more than 90 days prior to the production of organic milk.
Health care, living conditions and humane treatment Not addressed. Living conditions must support humane animal welfare, handling, transport, and slaughter. Sick or injured animals must be treated to relieve their symptoms. Preventive health care practices are required, including: suitable species for the site and conditions; sufficient feed ration; appropriate housing, pasture conditions, sanitation to minimize diseases and parasites; conditions that allow exercise, freedom of movement, reduction of stress; vaccines; medical treatment for sick animals despite loss of organic status.
Records of animal origin, identity and traceback Not directly addressed. All records are to be maintained for a minimum of two years after the animal is sold or harvested. Records must show how and when supplements are provided, with receipts and ingredient lists. Records must show the source of all purchased market animals brought onto the farm or ranch and that they were raised according to AGA Grassfed Ruminant Standards. Only market animals 1 year of age or younger may be brought into the program by affidavit. Animals must be traceable by written record throughout their entire lives to their farm of origin. Producers must maintain an animal identification system to identify each animal and allow 48- hour trace-back. Producers must maintain records concerning the production (land management and feed production or sourcing, health care, all materials used), harvesting, and handling of agricultural products. Records must be: complete enough to fully disclose all activities and transactions in sufficient detail as to be readily understood and audited; maintained for not less than 5 years beyond their creation; available for inspection. Livestock products must be from livestock under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation. Origin and identity of livestock must be traceable from gestation through slaughter and sale. Livestock treated with a prohibited substance must be clearly identified and shall not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced.
Hormones or steroids Not addressed. Prohibited. No hormones of any type may be administered. Prohibited. See other prohibited substances above.
Antibiotics Not addressed. Prohibited. Animals must not be fed or injected antibiotics. Prohibited. Animals treated for humane reasons may not be sold as organic.

These standards were summarized for comparison purposes only. For accurate details, see the following:

AGA logo

American Grassfed Association Standards

USDA AMS Grass Fed Standards


USDA National Organic Program (NOP) Standards

  • Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. 7 CFR Part 205 includes complete standards for crop and livestock production, handling, certification and inspection.
  • Also see ATTRA’s Organic Standards for Livestock Production: Highlights of the USDA’s National Organic Program Regulations
  • The NOP is engaged in rulemaking to provide greater detail for selected provisions of the NOP livestock regulations, especially as they relate to pasture and ruminant animals. Although it is not yet part of the rule, several organic dairy and trade associations have expressed their support for the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Livestock Committee Recommendation for Guidance on Pasture Requirements for the NOP which was adopted by the NOSB on Aug. 16, 2005.

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Pasture, Forage, and Rangeland Resources


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Beef Cattle Resources

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Dairy Cattle Resources

dairy machine

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ATTRA Publications about Beef and Dairy Production and Grass Farming

Beef and Dairy Production

Grass Farming

grass farming

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New and Updated Publications from ATTRA

ATTRA publications.

New in both English and Spanish:

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ATTRAnews is the bi-monthly newsletter of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. The newsletter is distributed free throughout the United States to farmers, ranchers, Cooperative Extension agents, educators, and others interested in sustainable agriculture. ATTRA is funded through the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service and is a project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a private, non-profit organization that since 1976 has helped people by championing small-scale, local and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.

Teresa Maurer, Project Manager
Karen Van Epen, Editor
Mary Ann Thom, e-newsletter production

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