By Harriet Behar

Even though the NOP organic standards state that all organic livestock should have access to the outdoors, an opportunity to express their natural behavior and have living conditions that lessen stress to promote health and well-being, these rules have not been universally implemented by all USDA organic operations. Large organic poultry operations have provided small “porches” and have convinced the NOP and certifiers that this is the same as providing outdoor access. Operations that do provide outdoor access, with living vegetation, shade, food and water have a significant economic investment that others have avoided. The NOP has acknowledged that there has been a “market failure” with many organic producers providing quality humane living conditions and others mirror standard confined animal practices, creating confusion in the marketplace.

The Obama administration published a final rule in January 2017 to make organic regulations more in line with other animal welfare certifications. The Trump administration withdrew the rule later that same year, and it was not implemented. In the past five years and prior to 2017, many organic livestock producers have felt the need to pay for additional animal welfare certifications, to differentiate themselves from other organic operations and more clearly communicate to consumers the humane aspects of their operations.



A significant difference between the 2017 version and the 2022 version of this rule, is a proposed implementation timeline for avian outdoor access. The NOP has proposed either a 5-year or 15-year implementation timeframe for operations currently certified as organic. Many organic advocacy groups have spoken out against both the 5- and 15-year implementation timeframe. It can be argued that to be fair to all crop and livestock operations that make investments and capital improvements when they transition to organic, providing a three-year “transition” to providing true outdoor access is the only fair way to approach this implementation. The NOP should prioritize the majority of organic livestock operations that for years have upheld humane animal standards to provide outdoor access and allow animals to express their natural instincts, and have suffered unfair competition with operations that do not provide their poultry meaningful outdoor access. Rapid implementation is needed to remedy this situation as quickly as possible.


Birds should not be allowed to be kept in darkness during the daytime. This statement from the 2017 version was removed: Natural light must be sufficient indoors on sunny days so that the inspector can read and write when all lights are turned off. Confinement raised ducks are commonly kept in dimly lit or dark conditions in buildings with no windows. Numerous humane animal standards require sufficient natural light during the day along with artificial light of limited duration as the days get shorter. Organic farmers advocating for improvement in this area can make a difference.


The new regulation only requires half the outdoor access area to be soil and that soil should have “maximal vegetative cover” appropriate for the season, climate, geography, and species of livestock. This is another area where more specificity is needed. What does “maximal vegetative cover” look like on your farm? What do you do to promote healthy height and density to provide a quality forage area? Rotation, renovation, reseeding, and irrigation are used to provide lush vegetation that provides for healthy livestock as well as protection of soil and water quality. Areas of gravel and concrete should be limited to areas of high usage or possible erosion, such as right next to the doors, at roof driplines, walkways, and food and water areas. The vegetated area needs to be as close as possible to the building, and not be around the corner of the building where the birds might never use it. The vegetation should be managed in a way so it can regenerate and not permanently be denuded.


As written now, the birds can be temporarily confined inside when the outside temperature is below 40 degrees and above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Most birds can tolerate a larger temperature range. In many areas of the country, this keeps the birds confined for a significant portion of the year. Can you give examples of what you do on your farm and its effect on your birds?


Both the indoor and outdoor sq ft per bird requirements are at the lower end of the humane certifications. Outdoor areas for broilers is set at 1-1.25 sq ft per bird, for mature layers it is set at about 1.5 sq ft per hen, and for pullets it is set at about 1 sq ft per hen. Indoor areas for mature layers is set at 1-1.5 sq ft per bird depending on the type of housing and for broilers 1-1.25 sq ft per bird. The actual numbers in the regulation are based upon the average weight of the birds in the flock, so these numbers are approximate. European standards require approximately 42 sq ft per bird, but this can be accomplished through repeated rotations in a variety of areas over a full season, encouraging producers to continually move their flocks. This lessens parasite and disease problems, provides for healthier vegetation, and protects soil and water quality from the damage of overstocking. What suggestions do you have for stocking rates and forage management?


Needle teeth clipping and tail docking in pigs is not typically allowed in humane standards. In this regulation, they are only allowed when documented that “alternative steps to prevent harm fail.” This area could be strengthened with more descriptive wording to provide more space and better living conditions which remove the need for these alterations. Swine producers are encouraged to provide further descriptions that have worked in their operations.


Should young dairy calves be allowed to be temporarily confined indoors for up to six months or until weaned? There is an allowance for this, as long as the calves can see, hear and smell other calves. Youngstock benefit from being outdoors, especially when seasonally appropriate. Should there be a requirement for some outdoor access for these young animals?

The NOP has acknowledged that consumers will pay more for livestock products where poultry are truly outdoors as well as all species being managed under humane requirements. Consumers deserve a speedy implementation to lessen the current market confusion and the profusion of labeling claims. The organic label should consistently uphold consumer expectations of healthy environmental and animal production practices. Your voice is important to this process!