USDA survey provides a glimpse of organic milk and crop production

Organic dairies represented 3.5% of U.S. herds, 2.1% of cows and 1.5% of milk volume in 2008.

By Dave Natzke

In what’s believed to be the most comprehensive survey of its kind, USDA’s 2008 Organic Production Survey shows about 2,000 organic dairies produced 2.76 billion lbs. of milk with a gross value of $750 million.

The survey lists two categories of “organic” dairies: those “certified” by a state or private agency accredited by USDA’s National Organic Standards program; and those “exempt” from organic certification (<$5,000 in annual sales). According to the report, there were 2,065 “certified” and “exempt” organic dairy herds in 2008. The peak number of cows in those herds in 2008 was 219,031, falling to 201,960 head as of Dec. 31, 2008.

Of that total, 2,012 organic dairies reported selling milk during the year. They produced 2.757 billion lbs. of milk, with a gross value of $750.15 million. At that value, organic milk produced in 2008 carried an average value of $27.21/cwt. (27.57 million hundredweights divided by total value of $750.14 million).

Leading states

The organic picture isn’t completely clear, because the report withholds cow and production data from several states to avoid disclosing information about individual operations.

Among major dairy states, Wisconsin had 479 organic dairies selling milk in 2008, followed by New York, 316; Pennsylvania, 225; and Vermont, 179. As of Dec. 31, 2008, California herds contained the most organic cows, at 35,333 head, followed by Wisconsin, 25,916; Texas, 18,854; New York, 17,431; and Oregon, 16,290.

California topped the list for milk production, at 501.8 million lbs., followed by Wisconsin, 329.0 million lbs.; Texas, 284.2 million lbs.; and Oregon, 261.1 million lbs.

Based on production and income estimates for individual states, average annual prices for organic milk were: California – $26.60/cwt.; Wisconsin – $25.87/cwt.; Texas – $28.47/cwt.; New York – $28.46/cwt.; Vermont – $28.21/cwt.; and Oregon – $26.43/cwt.

About 1,623 herds sold 39,922 organic cattle during the year, with a total value of $33.47 million.


Organic dairy herds require organic feedstuffs. The USDA estimated 3,704 certified and exempt farms produced 1.11 million tons of organic dry hay on 415,500 acres in 2008. About 71% of those producers sold organic dry hay in 2008, valued at $107.8 million.

In addition, 1,023 farms produced 626,750 tons of organic haylage, other silage or greenchop on about 118,500 acres. More than half (560) of those farms sold forages in 2008, value at $18.6 million.

Finally, 664 farms produced 373,615 tons of organic corn silage on just under 25,000 acres. About 40% of those producers sold organic corn silage in 2008, valued at $8.6 million.

General information

The 2008 Organic Production Survey counted 14,540 U.S. farms and ranches either certified or exempt, covering 4.1 million acres of land, of which 1.6 million acres were harvested cropland and 1.8 million acres were pasture or rangeland.

Nearly 20% of all organic operations were in California, which also led the nation in organic sales, with $1.15 billion – or 36% of all U.S. sales. Nationwide, 2008 organic sales totaled $3.16 billion, including $1.94 billion in crops sales and $1.22 billion in sales of livestock, poultry and their products.

The report concludes the nation’s organic farms have higher average sales, but also higher average production expenses than U.S. farms overall. Production costs revealed in the survey do not differentiate between type of operation (livestock or crop).

Most U.S. organic producers sold their products locally, with 44% of sales taking place less than 100 miles from the farm. Nearly 83% of organic sales were to wholesale channels, including processors, millers and packers. Just over 10% of sales were direct to retail operations, including supermarkets. Only 7% of sales were direct to consumers, via farm stands, farmers’ markets, community supported ag and other arrangements.


DAIRY: USDA previously estimated total 2008 U.S. milk production was 190.0 billion lbs. There were 57,127 U.S. dairy herds licensed to sell milk, with an estimated 9.315 million cows. Using those estimates as a basis, certified and exempt organic herds represented about 3.5% of the nation’s total herds; cow numbers made up 2.1% of the U.S. herd, producing about 1.5% of the nation’s total milk volume in 2008. The U.S. average price paid to producers for organic milk was $27.21/cwt. in 2008. The U.S. all milk price paid to producers in 2008 was $18.29/cwt.

FORAGE: USDA estimated total 2008 U.S. all dry hay production on 60.15 million acres, with a total harvest of 146.27 million tons. Using those estimates as a basis, certified and exempt hay producers represented 0.7% of all hay acreage and hay tonnage in 2008. Total 2008 U.S. corn silage was estimated on 5.97 million acres, producing 111.6 million tons. Certified and exempt organic producers represented 0.4% of all corn silage acreage and 0.3% of all corn silage tonnage.


• To see the full report, USDA’s 2008 Organic Production Survey, visit

Organic pasture rules clarified

USDA announced details of National Organic Program regulations to clarify the use of pasture in raising organic ruminants. The main components of the rule include:

• Animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year.

• Animals must obtain a minimum of 30% dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season.

The final rule will be published June 17, 2010, and will become effective 120 days later. Operations already certified organic will have one year to implement the provisions. New operations must demonstrate full compliance to obtain organic certification.

For more information, visit