Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at: http://www.nofany.org/organic-farming/technical-assistance/organic-dairy, verified 18 July 2012).
Organic dairy herd health is based on a holistic philosophy where soil, the environment, nutrition, and animal health are integrated. In conventional farming, a ‘reductionist’ approach to health is taken. When disease occurs in an organ or system, that diseased area is the target for examination and treatment and often, the rest of the body is irrelevant or ignored. Organic farmers and veterinarians use a different approach and look at the animal as an integrated unit that is a part of the whole ecosystem in which it lives. When disease becomes a problem on organic farms, the farmer cannot just look at the symptoms of the sick animal, but must consider the symptoms of the farm as well. What is lacking in soil health, nutrition, housing, and management that is predisposing the cows to disease?
The prevention of disease through best management practices is essential. Organic farmers do not merely substitute alternative medicine or treatment for one they may have used conventionally. Preventive practices, such as excellent nutrition, vaccination as necessary, stress reduction, and attention to sanitation greatly enhance the health of the herd and reduce disease. When disease does occur, early diagnosis and intervention is essential. To be most effective, alternative treatments need to be introduced earlier and more intensively than conventional treatments. The advantages to animal health under organic management include higher forage diets from predominantly good quality pasture, more exercise and fitness from actively grazing, reduced stress from lower production, crossbreeding for hybrid vigor, and the ability to exhibit natural behaviors. Farmers new to organic may have concerns about not being able to reach for a bottle of penicillin or prostaglandins each time a problem occurs, but in a well-tuned organic system, the instances when these products are needed are often reduced.
Risk is the possibility of an event happening (like disease) that will have a major affect on the health and financial profitability of the farm. A risk analysis helps identify potential problems and determine how to manage them most effectively. Your veterinarian can help with this process. Many states have cattle health assurance programs that assist the development of farm plans and sometimes provide financial support for testing. One of the most comprehensive sites is provided by the New York Cattle Health Assurance Program (www.nyschap.vet.cornell.edu).
Risk analysis consists of three basic steps:
Using best management practices on your farm will help increase your herd’s health and will reduce disease, so it is worthwhile to take the time to include these in the herd health section of your Organic Systems Plan. Best Management Practices (BMP) are methods that reduce the risk of disease in the herd and may be as simple as keeping stalls clean and comfortable or may be more complex, such as designing and testing a segregation program to manage Johne’s on the farm.
Key steps in instituting BMPs are:
Most consumers of organic dairy products purchase them with the idea that the cows producing the products are housed comfortably, are allowed to express natural behaviors, are outside on pasture, and that stress, illness, and suffering are reduced.
The National Organic Program (NOP) rule specifically states that “organic livestock producers must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behaviors of animals” and that “no producer shall withhold medical treatments from animals in an effort to preserve its organic status.” If properly administered alternative treatments are ineffective, farmers must use prohibited conventional substances as a last resort if it might save the animal. That animal must be identified and its food products (meat and milk) must be eliminated from the organic food chain forever.
“With herd health, the hardest thing to learn is the point at which you are not going to be able to pull an animal through with alternative remedies and knowing the point when you need to resort to antibiotics. The problem in some conditions is if you wait until they look like they are going to die, [the cows] probably still will die anyway. [The NOP] requires that you do not let animals suffer, although a treated animal must then be removed from the herd. The longer you are in organic management, the healthier your cows are.” —Liz Bawden, organic farmer in Northern New York
The backbone of every organic farm is good recordkeeping so you can verify your organic management practices. Animal health records will be required by your organic certifier, and they are strongly recommended as a good business practice. Good records help you make well-informed decisions about preventative healthcare, develop appropriate culling strategies, and help fine tune your reproductive program.
Keeping detailed information on estrous (heat) cycles, feeding, and production is also recommended and makes good business sense. The health record form (appendix A) at the end of this chapter provides an example of an individual animal health record. Your certifier or milk processor may have other recordkeeping templates or suggestions. Finally, the most important piece of recordkeeping is actually using the information you collect to make sound financial and management decisions by being able to cull a repeat breeder or a cow with chronic mastitis.
Minimum data to track in your health recordkeeping include:
Even though most conventional pharmaceuticals are not allowed in organic management, veterinarians can still play an important role on the organic farm in preventing, diagnosing, and managing disease. As the number of organic farms increase, we will likely see an increase in the number of veterinarians skilled in the use of alternative treatments, or at least familiar with managing diseases on organic farms.
A VCPR exists when the veterinarian has sufficient knowledge of the animal and the farm management through examination and farm visits. The veterinarian can work with you to develop a preliminary organic treatment plan and should be available for follow-up in case of adverse reactions or worsening of disease conditions.
Most alternative treatments are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are therefore considered “extra label drug use” (ELDU) under the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). Alternative treatments (e.g., aloe vera, homeopathic drugs, and botanical tinctures) must comply with the drug labeling and storage requirements of Section 15r of the PMO. All treatments must be labeled with the proper ELDU documentation. Without proper labeling and storage, you may face debits on farm inspections and risk losing your permit for shipping milk.
Alternative and allowed conventional treatments must be labeled with the following.
Performing physical examinations on your animals will help you identify illnesses earlier, communicate with your veterinarian, and monitor response to treatments. It is worthwhile to develop a consistent routine for your physical examinations and to record your findings as you go. The information in Appendix B was developed by Cornell University’s PRO-DAIRY and is a useful guide to physical exams for all farms.
This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.