by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

First, let me start by wishing each of you a very happy, prosperous and blessed New Year. If you are in the cattle business, and if you're reading this you most likely are, you know we have a LOT to look forward to in 2015. It's hard to find a cattle producer these days who does not walk around with a large grin on their face and justifiably so! But even though the markets are strong and it seems that the typical producers are cruising there are still opportunities to improve profits and look into alternative means of production.

Seldom does a week go by that I don't get a question or have a discussion concerning all-natural programs, organic programs or a comparison of the two. With that in mind and looking into the new year it seemed a good idea to revisit these two sectors of the beef industry and provide a detailed comparison of the two.

All-natural and organic production system have some inherent differences, many of which are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To start with the discussion let's look at a basic comparison of the two in terms of the basic dos and don'ts. Table 1 outlines some of what MAY be included.

Keep these basic guidelines as we walk through the programs.

Natural Beef Production

In general, the USDA does not provide extensive guidelines in defining the parameters of natural beef production. The definitions come more from the various natural beef programs that producers may participate in for marketing purposes. For the most part natural programs restrict the use of antibiotics and growth promotants (hormone based) in the production of the cattle that are enrolled in their program. They may also have requirements concerning breeds as well as carcass quality. Once the cattle are harvested and the meat labeled it provides an indication to the consumer of these limitations. Some label claims on natural products say more. These claims, which describe a verified process that must be documented, are specific to the particular companies.

The standard in the industry, however, has become “never-ever.” Never-ever programs not only prohibit the use of antibiot-ics (therapeutic and feed grade) and hormones, but they also pro-hibit ionophores and animal by-products throughout the life of the animal. There is considerable variation, even in the never-ever programs. The Natural Beef In-dustry possesses more ambiguity than the other two programs. Industry programs may prohibit these products throughout the life of the animal, prohibit during the finishing phase, or allow produc-tion of a minimally processed product with no artificial ingredi-ents. Since voluntary claims and statements are so variable, the USDA has moved to definitively classify “naturally raised” to im-prove clarity in the marketplace and to ensure consumer's interests are better protected. “Naturally raised” pertains to how cattle are managed. These management strategies are defined by companies that have process-verified programs by the American Marketing Service.

Producers must be aware that some performance is lost when products like implants and medi-cated feed additives are not used. Production costs are usually higher for natural beef. Under-standing those extra costs is criti-cal to making sound decisions about producing cattle in a natu-ral beef program.

The natural beef market has developed into a legitimate mar-keting option with incentives attractive enough to justify con-sideration. Generally, “certified natural” cattle have typically received premiums ranging be-tween $0.25 to $15.75 per cwt on a live-animal basis although these numbers may vary quite a bit at this time. This variation is likely due to the absence of an official, standardized definition for cattle that are naturally produced. The average premium being offered by marketing companies has been $5.79 per cwt, while feedyards are paying $4.76 per cwt. Again, with the strength of current markets these numbers may be higher at this time. Although the increase in selling price is considered a “premium,” often this premium is necessary to offset losses in productivity associated with required management practices to produce natural beef. In some cases, these premiums have been consistent and high enough to exceed losses in productivity, making cattle producers take notice. As the consumer market increases demand for products of this nature, the premiums will also increase.

Before a cattle producer par-ticipates in a natural beef pro-gram, it's important to have an understanding of the require-ments for the branded program they are interested in. Numerous programs are in existence, each with its own set of production requirements. Although a natural beef program may qualify for USDA process verification, such programs are actually adminis-tered and regulated by the com-pany or organization that owns the brand name, not the USDA. Natural beef is produced to fit into a specific branded beef pro-gram, and therefore, the owner of the brand sets the requirements and is responsible for regulating compliance. This makes the natural beef program's integrity extremely important.

To use the term “natural” on a food label, the USDA requires three things: (1) the product must be minimally processed, (2) the product cannot contain any artificial ingredients and (3) the product cannot contain any preservatives. The USDA has no specific restriction on management practices during the life of the animal.

Table 1 above lists the general production and certification re-quirements for a natural beef program. If a beef producer is considering participating, it is advisable that specific program requirements be reviewed at length. For example, some natural beef programs only restrict antibiotic and implant use during the last 100 to 120 days prior to harvest while others restrict use throughout a given stage of production.

Again, the exact system used is dependent on the program.

Organic Beef Production

Consumers purchasing beef labeled as “organic” can assume that the product has come from a source that has never received hormones or antibiotics for any reason. The USDA has a pro-gram called the National Organic Program (NOP) and certifies agents that subsequently can certify producers to follow the livestock production and handling standards set by the NOP. Cattle for slaughter must be raised under strict organic management from the last third of gestation. Producers are required to feed products—including pastures—that are 100 percent organic, but they may provide vitamin and mineral supplements allowed by the NOP. Organically-raised cattle may not be given hormones, ionophores, or antibiotics for any reason. Preventive management practices, including use of vaccines, to keep cattle healthy are allowed, and producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from sick or injured cattle. However, cattle treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic. The parameters of organic production are much stricter and require detailed record keeping. All organically raised cattle must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture. Cattle may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled “organic” must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. Organic food is produced without using most con-ventional pesticides, fertilizers made from synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, or bio-engineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified. Farms and handling operations that sell less than $5,000 per year are not required to be certified by USDA. Although exempt from certification, these producers and handlers must abide by the national standards for organic products and may label their products as organic.

USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled and processed.

Along with the national organic standards, USDA has devel-oped strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organ-ic content of the food they buy. USDA has developed a USDA Organic seal that tells the consumer a product is at least 95 percent organic. Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free and natural, can still appear on food labels, but only certified organic food can use the USDA Organic seal. For more information on the USDA organic standards, go to http://www.ams.

To produce, market, label or advertise beef using the term “organic,” producers and processing companies must each be certified by the USDA as organic producers. This is a highly involved process that requires tremendous time, effort and documentation. To qualify for an organic label, all USDA organic regulations must be met. Beef produced and sold as an organic product must be managed under an organic program from birth to harvest.

Here is a list of a few requirements:

• Animals have to be produced and processed by a USDA-certified organic processor.

•The animals must be free of any antibiotics or growth hormones.

• They must be free of mammalian or poultry protein or by-products. Feed must not have been exposed to pesticides, fertilizers made from synthetic ingredients or bioengineering.

• Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation.

• Producers are required to feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.

• In order to produce 100 percent organic feed, the land will have no prohibited substance applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.

• The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.

• Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotation and cover crops and the application of plant and animal materials.

• Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a producer may use nonorganic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions.

• Crop pests, weeds and disease will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, biological controls and grazing. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.

• Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, will be used to keep animals healthy.

• Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.

• All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal's stage of production, inclement weather or to protect soil or water quality. Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited.

• Livestock used as breeder stock may be brought from a nonorganic operation onto an organic operation at any time provided that, if the offspring are to be raised organic livestock, the breeder stock must be brought onto the facility no later than the last third of gestation.

• Livestock or edible livestock products that are removed from an organic operation and subsequently managed on a nonorganic operation may not be sold, labeled or represented as organically produced.

• Breeder stock that has not been under continuous organic management since the last third of gestation may not be sold, labeled or represented as organic slaughter stock.

• The producer of an organic livestock operation must maintain records sufficient to preserve the identity of all organically managed animals and edible and nonedible animal products produced on the operation.

• The producer of an organic operation must not feed rations containing urea or manure.

• The producer of an organic operation can perform physical alterations as needed to promote the animal's welfare and in a manner that minimizes pain and stress.

• Manure must be managed in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, heavy metal or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients, and the producer must manage pastures and other outdoor areas in a manner that does not put soil or water quality at risk.

• Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.

All nonagricultural ingredients, whether synthetic or nonsynthetic, must be included on the National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances. Handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with nonorganic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances. In a processed product labeled as “organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be organically produced, unless the ingredient(s) is not commercially available in organic form.

Obviously the differences between the three production systems is considerable. Producers should carefully evaluate each of these to determine which best fits his interests and goals. Opportunities exist under each program and should be weighed carefully.

Copyright 2014 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is and nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs Texas. He can be reached by e-mail at For more informations please visit us on Facebook at Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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