Some farmers who operate conventional dairy farms find it difficult to imagine how animals are kept healthy on an organic farm due to limits on products that can be used. Keeping a healthy herd is actually easier than it might seem.

Dr. Guy Jodarski, lead veterinarian for CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley in Wisconsin, works in sustainable livestock with emphasis on dairy cattle herd health. Jodarski explained that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is the system under which organic dairy farmers operate, and prevention is the main concept behind health care for organic dairy cattle.

“Organic farming isn’t finding alternative inputs,” said Jodarski. “The focus is on prevention. It also isn’t letting nature take its course. It involves close observation and having an experimental mindset. Certain principles guide us, but conditions in different regions and in different years mean we always have to adjust.”

Jodarski said there’s a lot of common ground among conventional and organic farmers because both share the goal of maintaining animal health.

Rulemaking around the NOP involves the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which includes 15 appointed volunteers who review the ever-evolving rules. “There’s a national list of synthetic inputs that are approved or prohibited,” said Jodarski. “It’s reviewed by the NOSB who recommend to the NOP whether it needs to change.”

For organic producers, most vitamins and minerals are allowed, vaccines are allowed and some synthetic materials are allowed. “Natural products, including herbal remedies and things you would grow in your garden, are not regulated through the organic program,” said Jodarski. “If it’s a natural material, in general, you can use it.”

One example of a fairly common animal health issue in organic dairy production is pasture bloat, which Jodarski said occurs most often in cattle grazing immature, lush legumes such as alfalfa and clover. “The lush legume is rich in compounds that make a foam in the rumen, and the rumen is always fermenting,” he said. “Rumen gas is normally a free gas and the cow can burp it out. When the gas turns to foam, the cow can no longer burp it out and it’s an emergency.”

The goal is to eliminate the foam, which requires a surfactant. Maple syrup makers noticed that a pat of butter placed on foamy, boiling syrup will make the foam go away. The same concept works with cows: a half-stick of butter administered with a balling gun can quickly relieve bloat.

Sugar is another easy solution for some issues thanks to its antibacterial and drying properties. A handful of sugar cubes pushed through the cervix will help with potential infection from a retained placenta.

Maintaining health on organic dairies

Youngstock in organic dairy production should be rotated on different pastures to help manage internal parasites. Photo by Sally Colby

Simple products can be given to a cow with ketosis. Ketosis is a negative energy balance, and energy can be provided with an apple cider vinegar and molasses drench. “The certifier will be happier if those inputs are organic,” said Jodarski, “but the rule is, in an emergency, you wouldn’t need to use organic apple cider vinegar or molasses.”

Synthetics such as vitamins and minerals, vaccines, electrolyte solutions, calcium and aspirin can be administered. Disinfectants such as iodine and alcohol are allowed. An anti-inflammatory such as flunixin can be used in organic production but the withdrawal for meat and milk is twice the labeled time period.

“The NOP says (the product) has to come from a licensed vet, it has to be an emergency and twice the meat and milk withdrawal is required,” said Jodarski.

Since prevention is the key to health, Jodarski advised organic dairy farmers to maintain good air quality for animals. “The environment is really important,” he said. “Calves in a three-sided barn with deep bedding and good ventilation are less likely to develop respiratory issues.” Colostrum, vaccination and nutrition are also important for calves.

Organic dairy farmers who have calves with respiratory infections can use an antibacterial tincture that includes garlic or other natural ingredients. Flunixin, vitamin C and tea made from expectorant herbs such as wild cherry bark, mullein leaf or slippery elm can be administered.

Jodarski said that in grazing ruminants, three important factors help prevent disease: a high forage diet, grazing and soil health.

“A high forage means less grain,” he said. “Ruminants developed as forage eaters. We like to limit grain to less than 1% of body weight. A 1,000-pound cow would receive no more than 10 pounds of grain per day.” Maintaining animals on limited grain means providing good quality forage, managing grazing and selecting animals with suitable genetics for grazing.

The NOP rule requires cattle graze pasture for at least 120 days. During that time, the animal must be eating 30% of its dry matter intake directly from the pasture. Grazing must be documented for each class of livestock on the farm. Calves under six months don’t have to be grazed, but grazing young animals is encouraged.

“Grazing effect on health is important,” said Jodarski. “In a study of dairy heifers, half were raised on pasture, half were confined. The heifers raised on pasture produced about 2,000 more pounds average milk during their lactation.” Animals raised primarily on pasture also have fewer incidences of displaced abomasum, likely due to more movement as they graze.

Health begins with soil, and Jodarski said soil is more than a physical medium. “It’s a living, breathing community and we need to treat it that way,” he said, adding that a diverse perennial system includes a variety of plants. “The root structure of perennial plants develops over multiple years. Photosynthesis moves sugar down to the roots to feed mycorrhizae and microbes, which sequesters carbon in the soil.”

Some organic dairy farms have internal parasite issues in young stock simply because animals are kept on one specific pasture and graze it too short. “If you allow some residue, about four to six inches, animals won’t pick up as many parasites,” said Jodarski. “When you overgraze, there are a lot more parasites. The solution is to rotate calves, which is challenging for farmers because it takes more land.” Temporary net fencing or moveable calf hutches can help manage parasites in young animals.

The microbiome concept is also part of organic dairy health. “We’re seeing big changes in the microbiome in the soil due to management practices,” said Jodarski. “We want open soil with pore space, which can’t happen with compaction or without microbial life.” He added that individual cows have their own microbiomes, herds have microbiome patterns and regions have patterns.

“Prevention is the key,” Jodarski reiterated. “Good grazing promotes health for everything – soil plants and animals. Health is everything working together.”

by Sally Colby