3/8/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer
Livestock farmers want their animals to have enough space to grow and be healthy, but how much space is enough?
Pennsylvania Certified Organic, or PCO, is spending this year considering that and other questions as it re-evaluates its rules about livestock living conditions.
In addition to spacing, these requirements include how soon an animal can be let into an outdoor area and what materials can be used in outdoor pens.
“We’re looking at all aspects” of living conditions, said Johanna Mirenda, PCO’s policy director.
The USDA’s National Organic Program has rather general rules about livestock living conditions. There are few numerical benchmarks to go by on this particular topic, Mirenda said.
When the national livestock standards were first released in 2000, organic standards watchers expected USDA to eventually flesh out these rules, but that has not happened, according to a letter the PCO standards committee sent to PCO members explaining the proposed changes.
PCO has worked to pass clearer livestock rules for its own organization in the past. In 2007, it rolled out rules for the amount of space poultry must have, and it developed a policy on outdoor access last year.
“Organic farming practices are inherently diverse,” so the group wanted more specificity to ensure compliance, Mirenda said.
“Obviously, too little (space) would result in crowding, health issues” and other problems, Mirenda said. “There’s lots of qualitative things that you can look at.”
Quantifying those standards, however, makes for less subjective, more exact determinations, she said.
To that end, PCO uses numerical standards based on the age of the birds set down by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care.
“We really do look to other established standards” for guidance, Mirenda said.
Humane Farm Animal Care standards were recently changed, so one option is for PCO to adopt those revisions, Mirenda said.
Alternatively, pullet, or young laying bird, spacing requirements could be based on the bird’s weight, Mirenda said.
Broiler spacing is already determined by weight, and USDA’s National Organic Standards Board has investigated that type of system, according to the PCO letter.
Currently, laying birds can be kept indoors until they are 18 weeks old.
“Is this age still appropriate? Is there new information we need to take into account?” Mirenda said.
One suggested alternative would increase that age to 23 weeks. Birds are often moved into the layer house at 17 to 18 weeks old, and it might be hard for the birds to adjust if they are suddenly let outside as well, the letter says.
No matter if access is granted at 18 or 23 weeks, broilers are often slaughtered before reaching those ages. As a result, many may never get outdoor access, the letter says.
“This situation may not meet the expectations of consumers,” the letter says.
To fix that problem, shorter-lived animals could be given outdoor access when they are a certain percentage of the way through their lives, while longer-lived animals would still be let outside based on their weeks of age, the letter says.
It is hard to develop numeric standards for pastured poultry operations because of the variability in management practices, the letter says.
PCO may decide to have inspectors evaluate the animals’ health and freedom of natural movement qualitatively, or the organization could draw from existing numerical standards like Humane Farm Animal Care, according to the letter.
The group is also looking at standards that would apply to all livestock species.
PCO currently allows the outdoor access area to have any type of surface, including gravel and concrete.
A slab is easy to clean, and it does not inhibit the enjoyment of fresh air, the standards letter says.
USDA does not require the surface to be a nutrition source, though PCO is weighing a requirement that animals have access to plant-covered soil.
According to supporters, “poultry, in particular, need grass or soil or dirt to be able to exhibit natural behavior, including scratching and obtaining nutritional value from grass,” the letter says.
While PCO wants animals to have as much exposure to sunlight as possible, the group does allow outdoor pens to have partial walls or roofs for protection.
There is some debate about whether solid-walled shelters are acceptable in an outdoor system, or if only materials that let light through, such as chicken wire and chain-link fencing, are permissible, according to the letter.
PCO’s standards committee hopes to publish its livestock spacing proposals for member comment by the end of 2014, Mirenda said.