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New Tool Helps Farmers Builds Organic Dairies

15 April 2009

COLORADO, US - A calculator has been developed to help consumers, dairy farmers, and food companies estimate the avoided environmental, public health, and animal welfare impacts associated with shifting dairy cows from conventional to organic management.

The "avoided impacts" stemming from applications of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides, and several classes of animal drugs can now be estimated for a single milking cow, a given herd of milking animals, across all cows in a region or all farms shipping to a given dairy processing company, or even for a gallon of milk.

The design of the calculator, equations within it, and data sources are described in the Organic Center report "Shades of Green: Quantifying the Benefits of Organic Dairy Production." There were about 120,000 milking cows on organic dairy farms in 2008 that followed USDA organic certification guidelines.

Using the Microsoft Excel-based calculator, these U.S. dairy operations avoided the use of an estimated 40 million pounds of fertilizer and 758,000 pounds of pesticides on the 761,000 acres of farmland now used to grow organic feed or organic pasture. In addition, cows were administered more than 1.7 million fewer treatments with animal drugs. These treatments (usually injections) included antibiotics, hormones used as reproductive aids, and a genetically-engineered hormone to boost milk production.

"This calculator gives us the means to uniformly measure the extent to which organic dairy operations prevent toxic materials from entering our air, water, soil, and in some cases, our food and drinking water," says report author Dr. Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist of the Organic Center.

According to USDA organic standards, no artificial hormones or antibiotics are allowed for use on organic dairy farms. Organic regulations also prohibit the use of toxic and persistent chemicals for growing and maintaining pasture and in the production of grain and forage-based feeds. Energy intensive synthetic chemical nitrogen fertilizer is also prohibited in organic farming. The tool, developed by the Colorado-based Organic Center, is available free of charge at http://www.organic-center.org.

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