Organic Livestock

There is a growing market for organic meat and organic livestock production can contribute to animal welfare and environmental protection. The links on this page will help you explore the practices and markets.

Benefits of Organic Livestock

Although livestock are usually the last part of the farm to be certified organic, they are often central to the farm and can contribute to its success. Livestock play an even more critical role on organic farms than they do on conventional farms. Livestock on an organic farm play a key role in:

  • Nutrient cycling - a process in which nutrients are returned to the soil through manure and compost. Amending soils with animal manures can increase microbial biomass, enzymatic activity and alter the structure of the microbial community
  • Incorporation of feed crops, such as alfalfa or grasses into crop rotations helps to build soil organic matter
  • Increasing cropping options, adding diversity to the agro-ecosystem
  • Weed control - feed crops can be used to suppress and control weeds and animals can be used to graze out weeds on crops or pastures
  • Preparing the ground for cropping. Livestock such as pigs can ‘plough’ rough or new land before planting vegetables or grains, reducing tillage and weed control costs
  • Interrupting insect and disease cycles by taking land out of cropping
  • Adding value to grass-lands and promoting the use of green manures
  • Reducing the financial risks of farming by converting lower quality grain crops and screenings into profit and spreading income more evenly over the year

A good starting point to learn more about organic livestock production is the Organic Livestock Handbook published by Canadian Organic Growers.

Transitioning to Organic Livestock Production

Consider the following issues before you decide to certify your livestock:

  1. Is there a nearby market willing to pay an organic premium for your livestock product?
  2. Is there a nearby processing facility for slaughter and if needed, further processing? See the section below on processing requirements
  3. Does organic livestock production make economic sense for your production system? Will you have to redesign your barn? Do you have the land base to support the pasture requirements for organic? Before you start, undertake a cost of production analysis that includes significant new expenses such as organic feed. MAFRI has developed cost of production spreadsheets that you can customize for your own operation for organic field crops and organic beef (cow-calf, backgrounding)
  4. Do you have the land, equipment and labour needed to grow your own organic grains and or forages? For most livestock types, with the possible exception of poultry, growing your own organic feed is a requirement for profitability.

Organic Certification

You will need to comply with the Canadian Organic Standards and be inspected to these standards annually by a federally-accredited Certification Body. You can obtain the standards for free from the Canadian General Standards Board (CAN/CGSB-32.310, CAN/CGSB-32.311). The livestock section begins in Section 6 of the General Principles and Management Standards (CAN/CGSB-32.310) but if you are growing livestock feed, you will need to read and follow the entire standard. The following are key considerations related to organic standards:

  1. Organic agriculture is a land-based activity. You will need enough land for grazing, excercise and for spreading manure. Standards require that ruminant species be on pasture and that pigs and poultry have year-round access to outdoor runs (there are exceptions based on life stage and weather)
  2. Although breeding animals do not have to be organic, standards encourage producers to select breeds that perform well in organic systems. For ruminant species, breeding animals must be treated as organic during the last trimester of pregnancy in order for offspring to be considered organic. For poultry, chicks can be sourced from conventional breeders and must be treated as organic from the second day of age.
  3. Organic standards require that animals be treated humanely. Cages, routine chaining, unnecessary medical procedures such as tail docking and beak trimming are not allowed and living conditions must be designed to allow livestock to behave as naturally as possible. This meansdesigning housing systems to reduce stress and encourage behaviours such as foraging, mud and dust bathing, exercise, etc.
  4. You will need to design an alternative health care strategy that focusses on optimizing animal health through high quality feed and optimal environmental conditions and avoid the use of veterinary medicines, although these are allowed and even required under certain circumstances
  5. Organic standards set maximum stocking densities for both indoor and outdoor systems
  6. Most organic producers will transition their crops to organic first and in the third year of transition, they will begin transitioning their livestock. Organic standards allow producers to feed their own livestock transitional feed that has not yet been certified so that crops and livestock can be certified together - usually at the end of three years of transition

Processing Organic Meat

The federal Organic Products Regulations do not require the slaughtering, transportation or storage of organic meat to be done in a certified facility. If slaughter houses are packaging, labelling and marketing the meat under their own brand, they are considered to be processors and these activities must be certified. However, if these facilities are providing a service for organic operators, their are two options. The organic producer can include the slaughter, cutting and packaging activities under his or her own Organic Plan. However, under this scenario the producer would be responsible for ensuring that the slaughter facility maintains the organic integrity of the product from the time the livestock are delivered to the point that the meat is sold. Under this scenario, the producer pays an extra cost for the certification and the certification is linked to the producer, not to the slaughter faciltiy. This means that a second producer who wants to use the same facility would have to undergo and pay for a similar process and the facility would be subject to two annual inspections. A second option is for the slaughter facility to obtain an Attestation of Compliance. This places both the costs and the onus to maintain organic integrity on the facility. This option makes more sense when a slaughter facility processes meat for more than one organic producer.

Markets for Organic Meat

There is a high organic premium for meat in Canada which can range from less than 100% to over 200% of conventional. However, the cost of producing organic livestock is much higher than conventional because of the high cost of organic grains. The high feed costs can mean that organic livestock production is not profitable unless you grow the majority of the feeds on farm. Even then, you need to consider oppportunity costs - that is, the price that you could get on the open market if you sold the grains rather than feeding them to your livestock. As noted above, do not get into organic livestock production until you've worked out the cost of production and the organic price premium.

 Canadian Consumer Retail Meat Study (2016) by the Alberta Livestock & Meat Agency found that Canadians are least willing to pay a premium for organic meat. Overall, Canadians are eating less meat, and are switching their protein source away from beef towards chicken and fish. Price and geographical origin are the most important purchase factors, although raised without hormones, and antibiotic-free, were also rated highly. A similar study conducted in 2012 concluded that while the market is small, "there does appear to be a niche sector, particularly for chicken, that is interested in buying organic."

study by the Canada Organic Trade Association shows very low market penetration for organic meat as compared to other foods, with the largest Canadian market in British Columbia. Meat (including poultry and fish) makes up only 1% of the $3 billion annual Canadian market for organic food.