I went to Focus on Farming last week. Here are a few notes from one of the presentations I attended, on the new USDA Grass Fed program for “small and very small producers.” The class was presented by Steve Ross from the USDA, who developed and oversees his new program. (I think this is a link to the slide deck he used, or something very similar.)

The crux seems to be that there is an existing USDA Certified Grass Fed label, but it is designed around big ranches, and the approval is cumbersome and expensive. So, they have developed a simpler, less expensive version for small producers. I suspect that because public opinion often accuses the USDA as being “in the back pocket of” the big producers, this is in reaction to that pressure: the USDA is now making very explicit and overt attempts to support and help the small family farmer.

This new label is very, very simple. The feeding requirements read:

Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.

The standard’s intent is basically to disallow any types of feed concentrates. So, molasses is out, even if it’s just in your mineral tub. Grass fines are not OK, because it’s a seed concentrate. But of course incidental grass seed in graze or hay is OK. Grains of any kind are not ok, though you can graze grain crops before they reach seed stage. Alfalfa, other legumes, brassicas and other browse are ok. Basically just green plants, fresh or dried, is the guideline.

If your grass-fed calves or lambs meet this definition, you can fill out some simple paperwork, apply online, pay $108 for two years. If approved, you may use the USDA Certified Grass Fed label in your marketing, and also on your packaging, if you are selling USDA-inspected packaged meat by the cut.

When the label is put on cuts of meat, the processor must meet certain criteria (criteria, I believe, which mostly guarantees that they have adequate processes in place to keep track of each animal, so that grass-fed and non-grass-fed meat doesn’t accidentally get mixed and mis-labeled). This part gets a little more complicated, but here’s my understanding. If you are selling live animals that go to a custom-exempt processor, then no labels  other than the “not for resale” label can go on that meat anyway. So the grass fed certification label wouldn’t apply in this instance. If you are going through a USDA-inspected facility, they likely already comply with the standards, so this would just have to be verified. In some states (not ours, in WA) there are state-inspected facilities, which would need to meet some extra hurdles in order for you to be allowed to use the label on the cuts of meat they produce.

Though the USDA reserves the right to visit your farm to verify the claims you’ve made on your application, they don’t typically do this; which is how the program can be maintained inexpensively. It sounds like they anticipate, and have even seen already, that farms tend to self-police in this regard: people will turn in a peer who is misusing the label, because they don’t want to see it abused, putting the complying folks at a disadvantage.

The standard does not dictate what to feed your brood cows or ewes; only what is fed to the animals being marketed for meat. The definition of “small or very small” producer is someone who produces less than 50 calves per year, or lambs from fewer than 100 ewes per year. This cutoff is flexible; if you are slightly larger, you can still apply, and they will consider your application. This limit was chosen based on analysis of agriculture census data: there are over 600,000 cattle operations and 20,000 sheep operations who fit this criteria.

The standard also does not dictate how you feed or finish your animals, beyond staying within this grass-fed-for-life constraint. So it is, by definition, not a “stamp of quality” nor a grading system, but rather just a limited-scope certification that addresses a common consumer demand, which generally bolsters price. A lot of audience discussion ensued on the thing we all worry about: what if someone’s shoe-leather-tough animals are marketed under this brand, and thus weaken the brand? This is something the USDA does not intend to try to control. Because this gets back to cost: if they were going to get in our business and make sure we are doing good finishing practices, or trying to make some kind of grading system, it would be an expensive and complicated program that most people probably couldn’t afford. The whole point is to be simple so many people can leverage it.

Apparently anyone can use the term “grass fed” in marketing and labeling. So, it’s perfectly ok, today, to put “Joe’s grass fed beef” on your label. The only differentiation here is that you are allowed to say “USDA Certified” grass fed. So, the advantage is one gets to leverage the strength of the USDA brand; if you think it would bolster consumer perception of your claim.

There seemed to be a lot of audience questions around “what if this program doesn’t work for me?” Well, then, silly, don’t use it! Smile If you don’t want to do grass-fed, it’s not cost-effective for you to feed this way, or you’re already doing pretty well in marketing your stuff, then the program is probably not for you. Steve made it clear that this is a new program, and they are certainly open to suggestions on tweaking it. But the main intent is to avoid making it a huge government boondoggle with tons of complicated rules and high overhead to oversee and maintain.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find an example image of what the new USDA Certified Grass Fed logo looks like- even Google images couldn’t seem to help me here. I assume it’s a variation on the green USDA organic “circle” that we’re now all used to seeing. Maybe they are  trying to keep tighter control of it, by not letting it loose on the Innerwebs.

I don’t think I will use it quite yet, as I feel my products already sell like hotcakes. And I’m not yet marketing lamb by the cut, so could only use it in web and print advertising. But as I grow, it may be helpful to expand marketing efforts. I think the subtle psychological impact of this branding would be useful if trying to gain new customers, or lure people to cuts of meat in a meat case. So, despite the naysayers in the room at FOF, I’d like to say hats-off to the USDA and Steve Ross. I think they did a great job of making a simple, inexpensive label which may be helpful to many of the half-million farmers they were trying to target.