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Organic is Good for Cows

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From The Organic Report, Winter 2009

Organic is often celebrated for its positive impacts on the environment and personal health. According Maryellen Franklin of the Franklin Farm in Guilford, VT, land and people aren’t the only ones to win. Animals raised using organic practices also come out on top.  

Franklin transitioned her dairy farm to organic in June 2003, having found herself “in the pinch of small farmers” struggling to make ends meet. “We always knew that organic was the better way to farm for our land and our family,” she explains. “What we didn’t know was just how much better a way it was to raise cows.” 

organic cows on pastureThe organic difference was almost immediately apparent according to Franklin, who watched the incidence of illness drop dramatically on her farm. “As crazy as it sounds, when we went organic, we just didn’t have many sick animals on our farm anymore.” Nor did she face the large veterinary bills she incurred when she was operating her farm conventionally. At that time, the veterinarian made monthly visits to examine and treat sick animals; now, Franklin says, the vet stops by only occasionally to treat animals whose health problems cannot be managed using homeopathic remedies.

Franklin has also noticed a difference in her cows’ overall behavioral patterns since she made the switch to organic. “We’ve always had good animals on our farm, but our organic cows are the nicest, mellowest bunch we have ever worked with. Weather-permitting, they go out to pasture from the beginning of May until early November, bask in the sun, and enjoy the grass-based diet nature intended them to.”

Dairy farmer Edward Eugair of Morning Meadows Farm in Florence, VT has also found organic practices to have a positive impact on their cows’ health. Eugair, whose operation was “pretty much organic” before its official transition took place, has seen a noticeable decline in animal illness over the five years it has been certified organic. “Our cows experience less mastitis and have hardly any foot problems anymore,” he notes, adding that his vet bills have seen a similar drop. “In the past, the vet used to make regular visits, which made for a pretty hefty set of bills. Since going organic, we’ve tended to our animals in a closer, more personal way that allows us to prevent illness and significantly cut back on our vet expenses.”

In addition to a reduction in illness, Eugair, like Franklin, has observed positive changes in his cows’ temperament since he began managing them organically. “My cows have always been reasonably quiet, but they have become even more so since we’ve converted to organic.” Eugair attributes this to a number of factors, including organic’s emphasis on high quality feed, access to the outdoors, and production rates that are in keeping with the animals’ natural tendencies. “The cows are much less stressed, and their behavior really reflects it.”

Douglas Turner, owner and operator of Simplicity Farm in Waitsfield, VT, has been similarly satisfied with the effects of organic practices on his herd’s well-being. His animals, which have historically been outside from May until the beginning of November, now spend even more time on pasture. This change has led to an improvement in the animals’ overall health. His cows are now more resistant to mastitis and pneumonia, and therefore are significantly less likely to need expensive antibiotic treatments. “Our cows are sick less frequently than in the past, and when they do get sick, we catch it early and are generally able to treat them with inexpensive remedies like salve and aspirin,” Turner explains.

Turner has also seen a decline in the number of vet visits since his farm transitioned to organic in May 2007. The drop has not been as dramatic as that experienced by Franklin and Eugair. The vet comes, on average, once a month in the winter and every five to six weeks in the summer-only slightly less often than when Turner managed his farm conventionally. However, Turner is convinced that it is just a matter of time until he, too, will witness a substantial reduction in the frequency and cost of vet visits. “My cows are still in the adjustment phase, but I know from talking to other organic farmers that it won’t be long before my animals will only need to see the vet a few times a year.”

For cattle rancher and chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Organic Beef Rod Morrison, “organic has been, unquestionably, the way to go” to ensure his animals’ health. His cattle roam freely on his 600,000 certified organic acres in northwest Wyoming, where they have consistent access to high quality pasture, a large number of watering holes, and the freedom/ability to “behave the way nature intended them to.” The result? Few health problems, lower vet bills, and yes, “happier cows.”  As Morrison explains it, “What you see when you observe our cows is a group of animals that are in excellent physical condition and at ease with themselves and each other. It is beautiful.”

Dr. Hubert Karreman, a dairy veterinarian in Lancaster County, PA, offers a similarly positive view of organic cows’ health. “I’ve worked with clean cow on pasturethousands of animals in the course of my career as a veterinarian, and I can confidently say that the organic herds I deal with do not experience as many illnesses as those that are managed conventionally.” Particularly on farms where the rolling herd average is 18,000 pounds or less –a common size for small, organic farms- the number of production-related health problems drops off considerably. As Karreman puts it, “In general, animals raised as part of these smaller operations are just healthier.”

For Dr. Juan Velez, Senior Vice President of Farm Operations at Aurora Organic Diary, the beneficial impact of organic management is less clear cut. “I’ve seen incredibly healthy and happy cows that have been raised conventionally, and I’ve seen organic cows that have suffered from various health problems. In this sense, the issue is less about organic versus conventional and more about how an individual farmer chooses to manage his/her operation. If the investment in high quality feed, good living conditions, and overall respect for the animals’ needs are there, the animals are likely to be in good health.”

Linda Tikofsky, Senior Extension Veterinarian with Quality Milk Production Services at Cornell University, agrees. “Whether one is talking about organic or conventional farm management, there is always a range with respect to animal treatment and health. What matters most is how committed the farmer is to doing what is right for the animal.”

Still, both Velez and Tikofsky agree that the organic system, which is governed by a set of strict and enforceable rules, does help to ensure that a basic commitment to animal health is made and upheld. For example, because it prohibits the use of antibiotics (except in circumstances where the animals’ health/survival is in jeopardy), the organic system supports and promotes a preventative approach to health care that benefits animals and farmers alike. Most notably, it compels farmers to establish a close relationship with each animal. This relationship, which is cultivated through frequent interaction and “near constant observation,” enables farmers to quickly identify, assess, and respond to behavioral changes before they develop into health problems. In many cases, this approach spares organic animals of such common illnesses as mastitis and pneumonia. Moreover, it helps organic farmers to avoid reactive, antibiotic-based treatments, which can not only be costly but also threaten their animals’ organic status.

brown cowFrom Tikofsky’s standpoint, the organic system also promotes animal health through its understanding of and support for animals’ natural behaviors. As she explains it, “Cows are designed to spend much of their time outside on the pasture, where they can acquire the nutrients they need to survive. To the extent, then, that the organic system makes access to the outdoors a priority, it gives cows access to the high forage diet they need to maintain digestive health.”

Karreman agrees. “Much of the organic system is about trying to mimic Mother Nature. Her cues point to the importance of fresh air, dry bedding, sunshine, quality pastures, and high-forage feed, so that is what the organic system attempts to provide.” 

Tikofsky adds that the organic system’s requirement that livestock have access to the outdoors appears to help reduce the number of health problems from which many cows suffer. Several studies have found that cows raised organically are less prone to lameness and foot disease, due, in large part, to the fact that they move about on pasture, which is softer and therefore easier on their legs than concrete. Other studies have shown that animals consuming high forage diets, such as those organic cows are fed, suffer from fewer instances of mastitis and tend to enjoy greater longevity than animals whose diets are more grain and less forage-based.  

While such findings are encouraging, Tikofsky and Velez feel the shortage of comparative research on animal health in organic and conventional systems remains an obstacle. “At this point, we simply don’t have data that conclusively shows that organically raised animals are healthier than their conventionally raised counterparts,” says Velez. Tikofsky agrees. “Anecdotal evidence definitely points to the positive impacts of organic management on animal health. What we need now is the hard data to back it up.” 

According to Karreman, progress is being made on this front. Thanks to a grant made available through the Northeast region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, a team of researchers conducted a study in which the health of cows on 30-40 certified organic farms in Lancaster County was compared to that of animals on similarly sized conventional farms located approximately one mile away. The study, which consisted of a 308-question survey, an evaluation of dairy herd improvement information downloaded from Dairy Records Management Systems in Raleigh, NC, and the aforementioned farm-pairing, revealed that some organic cows are underweight and that there is room for improvement in the organic management system. Nonetheless, the study itself represents an important step towards amassing concrete, comparative data on the health of organic animals.   

Research is also being done to expand the quantity of information available about organic alternatives to traditional, antibiotic-based treatments for animal health problems. Karreman himself has done extensive work in this area. Over his 20-year career, he has dedicated much of his time to learning about these “natural” treatments, and in the process, has developed a number of botanical and biologic-based remedies for common livestock ailments. Having made such strides, Karreman is optimistic that research on organic approaches to treatment will continue. As he notes, “We’ve come a long way since the early days of organic, and I believe that there remain many interesting and exciting places to go with our research. Particularly now that we’re seeing university groups applying for funding to study natural treatments, such as those used in organic, I am hoping we’ll see the emergence of even more data to back up the positive things we are seeing in clinical observations.” 

The outlook is similarly positive with respect to the availability of research on animals’ overall well-being. Various quantitative surveys ranking animals on a scale of one to four (or in some cases one to five) on a variety of categories, including lameness, footing, body condition, hygiene, locomotion, and parlor behavior (which focuses on how cows respond to milking) have been developed, which, Velez notes, go a long way toward assessing whether a cow is, indeed, “happy.” “There’s nothing simple about measuring a cow’s happiness, given that it is an emotional rather than purely physical state of being. Nonetheless, by having concrete, measureable criteria with which to evaluate an animal’s health and behavior, we can make reasonable assumptions about its overall state of being.” 

Information about organic animal welfare is likely to increase further in the coming year. According to Tikofsky, a multi-state study will begin in Spring 2009, directly comparing the overall well-being of organic cows with their conventionally raised counterparts. The study will examine milk production and quality, lameness, mastitis, and other indicators of animal health. From there, Tikofsky hopes that definitive statements about the impact of organic practices on animal welfare can be made. “If we get the results that we expect to, showing that organic animals are healthier and less stressed, we will finally be able to say, with confidence, that organic is the superior way to raise livestock.”  

In addition to gaining academics’ attention, organic animal welfare is likely to get a boost in the regulatory arena. According to Karreman, who chairs the Livestock Committee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), this issue is poised to become a central focus of the Committee’s work. “Having successfully developed a series of proposed aquaculture standards, we are now ready to tackle animal welfare head-on.” In practice, Karreman says this will most likely mean clarifying the terms of the existing pasture rule. “Without being overly prescriptive, what we need now is a tightening of the rule to ensure that organic can legitimately assert itself to be the gold standard for animal health and welfare.”