Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Organic Animal Agriculture

A few years ago Melissa and I looked very seriously at going down the organic road with our beef operation. Ultimately, we didn't do it, and in the remainder of this post, I'll attempt to explain why we didn't.

However, before I get to that, maybe first I need to back up a step and explain *why* we were looking at it in the first place. Obviously, the most important step in thinking organic is having a core of fundamental beliefs that is congruent with what the organic agriculture movement is trying to achieve. On the surface at least, so far, so good. I am fully with them on long term, proactive controls, soil building, happy animals, and cyclical production models and methodologies. In many respects, organic agriculture is not incongruent with what we're doing with our beef animals right now. The thought was that if we could get certified it might give us another story to tell and the additional oversight might be be a selling point for some of our customers.

Unfortunately, when I started digging deeper there began to accrue some negatives to offset the positives. Here is a short list, along with some of my thoughts.

Farming is my business and my living rather than my hobby, so going organic is, for me, primarily a business decision. It's been my experience that it's seldom a good idea to knowingly make a business decision that takes you backwards financially, because if you're like me you will unknowingly make enough bad business decisions to sink a battleship all by yourself ! We ran a lot of math on going organic and we found that it was a wash with what we were currently doing from a financial standpoint. In this case, what I saw was a whole bunch of work and time to go through the certification process to win the use of a sales tool that would accrue this farm (at best) limited financial gain.

About this time, I began to look closely at some of the practices that were encouraged and discouraged by the certifying agencies with regards to stockmanship. It didn't take very long to find things that were massively incongruent with my beliefs; enough so that even if the money had been really right I couldn't have gone forward with with the certification process.

I guess I'm kind of wierd but I actually *like* the animals that live with me here on this farm. I want to give them every chance to live their lives as healthy and happy as possible, and if they get sick I want to treat them with the best and most efficacious treatment to get them back to a state of wellness as quickly as possible. Sometimes, the best treatment for sick animals involves using antibiotics. When it does it's my opinion that dosing them correctly and treating disease early is a lot more effective for the individual (and for the herd) than waiting and using them as a treatment of last resort.

Treating sick animals is no fun, either for the animals in question or for us. We take a lot of preventative steps to avoid the need to treat sick animals in the first place, either with or without antibiotics. One of the most important steps we take involves administering regular vaccinations against endemic diseases.

Both vaccinations and using antibiotics as first line controls in certain disease situations fly in the face of organic agriculture standards today. That's okay. It takes all kinds to make the world go around and if everybody were like me it'd be a pretty boring place. That said, I believe my protocols do as right as possible by the animals on this farm, and at the end of the day the most important thing has to be liking the face that looks at you in the mirror every morning.


Kate said...

I think there's a spectrum of best practices, and organic is only one point on that spectrum. Same applies to plant production. There are a number of quality farms in our area - both animal and vegetable - that take good care of the soil, environment and animals - that have opted not to go organic for flexibility and cost reasons.

SmartAlex said...

Heck, my personal garden is grown organically, and there is still no way I could meet the specifications of a certification. I think it's a load of hogwash. It's not like you're shipping your beef to a shelf in California and you need a stamp on the cellophane. Your customers can probably come visit and see that you are using healthy practices if that's what is important to them.

Jason said...



Smart Alex;

We very much encourage people to do just that. We have nothing to hide regarding our care with either the horses or the beef, and a short visit puts a lot of folk's fears and worries straight to bed.

Jack said...

I agree that being able to explain to your customers what your practices are and why you use them represents the best approach.
Organic certification provides that independent third party but then that also increases the distance between the producer and the consumer.
Organic production, especially with livestock, is difficult for me to fully accept for just the reasons that you have given.

If everybody was just like you Jason the world would be far from boring!

Jason said...


Right back at you ! It's a wonderment that there was enough room in Northumberland County for you and me both ! LOL !