"They are trying to cut corners in the interest of producing milk as cheaply as possible," said Mark Kastel, senior farm analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which represents organic family farmers. Organic farmers say grass feeding is essential to organic dairy farming because it is part of cows' natural behavior, and it enhances the nutritious fatty acids in the milk. Aurora cows get a diet high in grains, only consuming grass a few months out of the year.
Wal-Mart and Aurora contend that the farms are in full compliance with the Agriculture Department's standards for organic dairy, and Clark F. Driftmier, head of marketing at Aurora, said that it was unfair to focus on grass feeding as if it were the only measure of animal health and well-being.
"Our record of animal welfare is certified by an independent third-party expert," he said. "Our animals are outside all year long; they're never locked into barns."
Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora has massive facilities compared to other organic family farms, with 4,000 cows at its Platteville, Colo. Farm and 3,300 at its Dublin, Texas facility. But its numbers still pale in comparison to the average dairy, which can have upward of 25,000 cows in one facility.
In anticipation of the Agriculture Department's plans to increase requirements for grazing in order for milk to be called organic, Aurora plans to reduce the number of cows at their Platteville facility, triple the grazing area at their Texas farm, and open a new farm in Kersey, Colo. specially designed to allow year-round access to pasture.
Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota and former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, said that, Aurora farms' relatively small head count notwithstanding; it was almost impossible to put thousands of cows on pasture.
Kastel was not impressed with Aurora's moves either, and said that the company is just "greenwashing" since the acreage per cow will still be too low, and accused Aurora of overtaxing its cows by milking them three times a day rather than the two times a day that is standard at organic dairies.
Critics have said that Wal-Mart did not have to go with the biggest and cheapest supplier they could find in order to help usher organic foods into the mainstream, and Riddle noted that subsidy programs operated by dairy companies like Organic Valley, Horizon Organic and Stonyfield Farms are helping small and midsize dairy farms move to organic methods.
"These programs are going to help alleviate the organic milk shortage by next year," he said. "But you can't increase the supply overnight or place orders and have them immediately filled. Organic takes time.''