Working with organic dairies

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According to the USDA-APHIS Dairy 2007 study, organic dairy operations accounted for 1.7% of operations. Though small in number, interest in organic food, including dairy products, is on the rise.

Hubert Karreman, VMD, Penn Dutch Cow Care, Lancaster, Pa., and affiliate assistant professor, University of New Hampshire, has been working with organic clients since 1995, but was introduced to organic production in 1988 while working as a herdsman at a biodynamic farm. He currently has 85 organic dairy clients with an average herd size of about 50 milking cows (with total herd sizes of about 100 head). Karreman is a member of the National Organic Standards Board and serves as its Livestock Committee chairperson.

Karreman believes there are other methods available to treat many of the common ailments cows may experience, but it does take extra time to become educated about them. He has spent the last 20 years learning about “natural” treatments and often shares his clinical experience and resources with veterinarians working with organic clients.

“Recently transitioned or transitioning farms usually really like their veterinarians and would like to retain their services,” Karreman says. “Any organic farmer gets one free phone consult with me, but during that call I make it very clear that they are to have their local vet be in touch into the future. I will also give veterinarians some free advice so that everyone is in the loop. I believe that veterinarians unfamiliar with organic production simply need to hear about organics from another colleague like myself who has already gone through the learning curve. However, veterinarians also need to be willing to re-tool, if only to a minor degree, to keep helping clients they enjoy working with.”

On the other side of the organic size-spectrum, Juan S. Velez, MVS, MS, Dipl. ACT, is the vice president of farm operations for Aurora Organic Dairy, Platteville, Colo., which owns a total of 12,000 cows in organic milk production.

“I see a great opportunity for veterinarians to practice production and preventive medicine in organic dairies,” Velez says. “Sometimes I hear that the practitioners get frustrated with the regulations and also get frustrated because they can not use hormones or antibiotics as they would like. However, I see this as a great opportunity to teach the producer about prevention, proper milking routines, feeding management, employee training, vaccination programs and rotational grazing systems.”

Velez sees his role as creating standard organic protocols and facilitating the implementation of those protocols to reach the operation’s goal of outstanding animal welfare.

Which clients are right for organic?

You may have some clients thinking about turning to organic production, but its intensive system is not right for everyone. “Clients who are already doing management intensive grazing with their cows are prime candidates for transition to organic,” Karreman says. “These farmers tend to have a more holistic mindset in regard to their farm and accept less milk production in return for generally less health problems with their animals.”

Velez believes those producers who put cow welfare first can make a good organic dairyman. “Cow welfare takes in consideration all the factors that affect cow well-being and that is the key to a successful organic dairy systems plan.”

Karreman says if a livestock farmer accepts the following six points, he/she will find organic dairy farming relatively easy:

1) Try to mimic Mother Nature as much as possible  —  there will be dramatically fewer problems.

2) Release the feeling of needing absolute control over every aspect of the farm  —  it is not necessary.

3) Maximizing production is not the goal in organics.

4) Prevention is especially critical.

5) Most critical is fresh air + dry bedding + sunshine + well-managed pastures + high-forage feeds = healthy animals.

6) The more self-sufficient the farm, the more profitable it is likely to be. 

“Clients who are only trying to maximize milk production will be tougher to transition to organic unless they consciously accept the previous six points,” Karreman adds. “It can be done, but it does take more education  —  both through painful errors in the barn as well as attending meetings. The organic premiums should offset the lessened production. Even though more research needs to be conducted on the economic aspects of production, it is important to note that the roller coaster highs and lows of conventional commodity pricing is removed in the organic sector with a constant and persistent milk price from which farmers can more assur-edly plan ahead.”

Not just small farms are looking into transitioning. Velez gives advice for those larger operations considering the change to organics. “Many conventional large-scale producers realize that they already have a very good herd health program based on prevention and great cow comfort, and they incorrectly assume there will be no major changes other than implementing a grazing program if they decide to become organic producers. It is very important that the producer who is thinking about transitioning to organic is open-minded and willing to go through a paradigm shift. The producer has to be a believer in the organic system and not just transition for the economic reasons.”

Pharmaceuticals/biologicals in organic dairying

Contrary to what some consumers may believe, there are animal health products/interventions that are allowed and even encouraged in organic dairy production. Karreman explains that the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 explicitly states that antibiotics and hormones are prohibited for subtherapeutic and growth promotion use, and the regulation (7CFR205 et.seq.) requires permanent removal of an animal from a certified organic livestock operation if an antibiotic or hormone is used.

However, in 7CFR205.603 (list of allowed synthetics in organic livestock health care), oxytocin is permitted for post-parturient emergency use. Additionally, ivermectin is allowed for diagnosed parasite infestations when methods acceptable to organics have failed. But if ivermectin is used on slaughter stock, that animal can never be sold as organic beef. Therefore, ivermectin would be permitted in dairy stock, but there is a 90-day milk withhold time. Vaccinations are categorically allowed, and even encouraged, in a few different areas of the regulation.

As of December 2007, a short list of FDA-approved NADAs have become officially allowed, Karreman adds. These medications include xylazine, tolazoline, butorphanol, flunixin, furosemide, poloxalene and atropine (see 7CFR205.603).

Velez encourages practitioners to use a copy of the National Organic Standards as reference. “Even though it is a 500-page document, the section about approved substances for use in livestock is only a few pages long,” he says. “You need to always communicate with the producer before implementing the use of a substance that is being advertised as organic. The producer should consult with the certifying agency and needs to make sure that the claim that the substance is organic is actually accurate. The Organic Material Review Institute is a great source of information on products that are allowed.”

Health issues on organic farms

There are some health benefits to organic, grazing cows such as few problems with rumen acidosis due to high fiber content, and laminitis, but organic dairy animals do have their share of health problems. Karreman says parasitism of young stock is an issue he sees on organic farms but not usually on conventional farms. “While I see lameness on both types of farms, it may be more important on organic farms that need to walk for grazing pastures,” he notes. “The lameness on organic farms is generally due to an abscess, foot rot or hairy heel wart while on conventional farms founder/laminitis and hairy heel warts predominate.”

Body condition is usually less on organic farms. It must be emphasized that healthy grazing animals will have less body condition than confined cows; however, Karreman adds that grazing cows will have sleek hair coats and good muscle definition. “But there are organic farms with chronically less body condition year-round and that is not ideal.”

Velez sees more chronic pyometras due to the inability to use prostaglandins and the lack of effectiveness of the organically approved treatments for this reproductive problem. “That is why it is so important to concentrate the efforts on prevention,” he says. “There is also a tendency to see higher rates of chronic mastitis due to the inability to use dry cow treatments.”

Veterinarian’s role

Karreman believes the veterinarian’s role is extremely important on organic farms and that he/she is the connection between making sure animals are treated humanely and that there is a safe and wholesome food supply. “Obviously each farmer is different from the next, but there does seem an undercurrent of ‘cutting out’ the vet from the farm when going organic,” Karreman explains. “There are two basic reasons from my own personal experience. The first is that there are companies that sell a multitude of ‘natural’ treatments directly to the farmer through catalogues or a route truck, thus giving the farmer the perception that the company’s products can alleviate all kinds of problems. Of course, veterinarians are already accustomed to such tactics in the conventional realm as well.”

The second reason, Karreman says, is more infrastructural, in that not many veterinarians know how to treat health problems on organic farms with anything other than antibiotics and other prohibited materials. “To this end, I have dedicated more and more of my professional time to teaching my veterinary colleagues about treatments that are OK for use on organic farms. At this point, it is primarily from my own clinical experience over the last 12 years. However, I have boiled things down to only needing a handful of extra treatments to effectively treat organic livestock. More importantly, perhaps, is that I have taken a special interest in clinical research in order to bring factual information forward regarding organic livestock treatments.”

Velez believes the need for written protocols is independent of size. “Even on a small dairy farm, producers and their family members doing the chores take days off and somebody else has to do those chores. I can not stress enough the importance of training personnel. It is critical to avoid protocol shifting, and it is imperative to obtain the highest level of animal welfare.”

There is potentially less income working with organic clients due to not being needed as often for crises and “production diseases”; however, that can be offset by the variety of other methods of veterinary involvement with dairy farms, Karreman notes.

Veterinarians can, and should, be aware of the regulations 7CFR205.236 through 205.239 which detail the living conditions and feed requirements of organic livestock. “I can foresee a regulatory requirement that a veterinarian needs to be on the organic farm a minimum amount of times per year in the near future,” Karreman states. “This would be to primarily maintain a valid VCPR but also help with herd health questions as well as monitor animal well-being.”

Animal welfare

Organic dairymen are motivated to keep cows in the program, which means a reluctance to treat a sick animal with antibiotics and then lose her from the organic herd. An animal that won’t respond to organic-approved treatments and isn’t then treated conventionally can worsen and possibly die, which can bring about welfare issues.

Karreman says there are three basic instances when he strongly recommends antibiotics immediately and without delay: peritonitis, bone infections and when there are two organs involved in an infectious problem. “I have honestly figured out how to treat almost all other conditions in a manner acceptable to organic rules,” he says, “but the assumption, however, is that I am called in time.”

The 7CFR205.238(c)(7) discusses this topic. “Basically, you must not withhold appropriate treatment from an animal in order to retain the animal’s organic status, but if using a prohibited material, such as an antibiotic, the animal must be removed from the herd,” Karreman explains. “This particular regulatory language, along with the prohibition on antibiotics, is the primary stimulus in my finding reasonably effective non-antibiotic treatments to infectious disease.”

“There is obviously a fine line between antibiotic overuse or the use of antibiotics as a band-aid to a management problem, and not using an antibiotic when the animal needs it to relieve its pain and suffering,” Velez says. “It is part of the regulations to give treatment with a prohibited substance and remove the animal from the organic operation when organically approved treatments have failed. This is a very important aspect of animal welfare. I strongly believe that an animal that is not responding to organic treatments should be treated with prohibited substances, and removed immediately from the operation or be culled or humanely euthanized depending on the circumstances. The role of the veterinary practitioner is key to that process.

“The number one concern for veterinarians with large or small clients should always be animal welfare, and there are large dairies with excellent levels of animal welfare and some small dairies with excellent levels of animal welfare,” Velez states. “But there are some small and large dairies with very poor levels of animal welfare. Organic dairying is a great chance to practice real production medicine and implement animal welfare programs.” 



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