Organic Meat – what the rules say about organic livestock farming

It is a fallacy to assume that organic farming means farming with no inputs the soil, crops or animals.
Many products are permitted in the organic standards, it’s just that their use is controlled or restricted. For organic livestock, some of the common substances to be avoided are avermectins and vitamins. Avermectin residues have been proven to survive in animal dung and cause harm to insects and larvae that feed and live in the dung, and it is to preserve the whole ecosystem that avermectins are not permitted. Vitamins are commonly only available in liquid form derived from a chemical manufacturing process, rather than in the preferred natural form.
It is a common belief that organic animals cannot receive veterinary medicines but this flies in the face of the high standards of animal health that are expected of organic farmers. The basic principle is that a sick animal must be treated, but the day to day management of livestock revolves around preventing disease. It is a proactive approach, rather than a reactive one.
Where the herd or flock has a known incidence of a disease, permission can be granted to use antibiotics and vaccinations on the vet’s advice. Pneumonia is a common example. If pneumonia becomes a recurring problem the organic certifying body would ask the farmer to look at the root cause of the illness – such as make changes to housing to increase air draft. In a sudden outbreak where pneumonia has not been an issue in the past, vet advice is taken to administer the right veterinary medicines as quickly as possible.
One final point to note about using veterinary medicines is that the legal withdrawal period must be doubled. This is a safety net to protect the consumer from any risk of antibiotic residues in organic meat they buy.
Another important part of animal welfare that is strictly controlled is stocking density, in the field as well as in the shed. Organic animals must be given shelter so it is common for cattle to be brought inside during inclement weather. Access to pasture for the majority of their lives is also a requirement that is governed by the standards so zero grazing is not permitted. Organic animals must be given access to pasture and there are maximum limits for the number of animals per hectare. The organic standards place minimum limits on the area inside the shed for each animal of at least 1m2 per 100 kg of weight. In the Highlands and Islands many cattle sheds are built on slats. Whilst slats are permitted, the organic standards require that cattle have at least the equivalent area of slats is available as a solid-floored lie-back area.
Organic animals must be fed on a minimum of 60% forage (grass, silage and hay). This is strictly monitored through feeding records and checked at the farm organic inspection. Ruminants must be fed 100% organic feed, so organic farmers rely on producing their own feedstuffs on the farm. Where the animal’s diet needs specialist ingredients, certified organic feeds can be sourced from UK feed companies.
All organic farms are required to keep records of their livestock management which are part of the farm inspection. Organic livestock production is based on the Five Freedoms which were developed in the UK in 1965 and are now internationally recognised minimum standards for the health and welfare of livestock.

1. Freedom from malnutrition
2. Freedom from thermal and physical discomfort
3. Freedom from injury and disease
4. Freedom from fear and distress
5. Freedom from unnecessary restrictions of behaviour

Using these principles as a baseline, the SOPA organic standards add another 50 standards specific to livestock production.

SOPA operate a helpline for all queries and offer free guidance on organic conversion. Telephone 0131 335 6606 or email


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