Livestock on Organic Farms

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Among the thorniest of issues swirling around the edges of organic agriculture is the role of livestock. The disagreements arise because of the diversity of people and philosophies in the organic community. Organic agriculture can usually count vegetarians and animal welfare proponents among its more vocal supporters. Many of these people feel strongly that animals should not be exploited. Their rationale often goes beyond emotional and religious beliefs; convincing human health concerns, social issues, and environmental reasons are commonly cited. On the other side of this argument are those who feel that an organic farm cannot achieve its full potential or ecological balance without livestock manure; that it is essential to nutrient cycling and to the finer aspects of soil building.

Excellent soil fertility can be built in the absence of farm livestock and livestock manures by using vegetation-based composts (25) and by harnessing the livestock in the soil — earthworms and other soil organisms. However, it is clearly easier to design a contemporary, low-input organic farm when traditional livestock are integrated. The biological and enterprise diversity that livestock can bring contributes enormously to stability and sustainability. A good example is provided by Rivendell Gardens in Arkansas, which began integrating livestock enterprises after several years as a solely horticultural operation.

The owners of Rivendell, Gordon and Susan Watkins, now rotate their strawberry and vegetable crops with grass-fed, direct-marketed beef and pastured poultry. Ideally, poultry follows beef on pasture to reduce cattle parasites. The seasons in mixed legume/grass pasture leave the soil quite mellow and well-manured for subsequent high-dollar horticultural crops. (26)

The Rivendell operation demonstrates the sort of organic management where a large number of organic farmers and many animal welfare proponents find common ground. The Watkins' animals are all raised with minimal confinement and generous access to sunshine, fresh air, and free-choice foodstuffs. While domesticated and destined for slaughter, they lead low-stress lives in conditions much closer to natural than the conventional alternatives. This is the antithesis of industrialized factory farming systems, which are increasingly becoming the norm in livestock production.

Many in both the organic and animal welfare communities are working to prohibit factory farming of livestock in organic systems. Many of the difficulties revolve around the fine interpretations of language in various organic standards. Wording such as "access to fresh air and sunlight," for example, can be construed to mean nothing more than opening the door on one end of a large confinement poultry house for a couple hours a day.

with heavy metals and chemicals that are not eliminated by composting and may even be concentrated. Perhaps this was not yet a serious problem in his time; it is, however, in ours. Organic farmers and consumers concerned about contamination of soil and crops with agricultural pesticides and synthetic fertilizers would be remiss to ignore the contamination hazards of even well-composted sewage.

Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer and former NOSB member, has written eloquently about the progress of the National Organic Program. In a critique of the March 2000 draft of the proposed rule (24), he pointed to another reason why the use of biosolids ought to be prohibited in organic production. Because of the manner in which biosolids are gener ated, they are easily hauled and land-applied on an industrial-scale to industrial scale organic farms. Furthermore, since biosolids can essentially supplant animal manures as a source of organic matter and nutrients, their use would allow some very large farms to circumvent the traditional practices that promote biodiversity and enterprise diversity and integration. What Kirschenmann fears from biosolid use is technology that would nudge organic agriculture down the same road of industrialization taken by conventional ag.

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