REVIEW: Treating Dairy Cows Naturally
The natural cow
At long last, a comprehensive resource for organic dairy farmers

Reviewed by Gina Robinson
Reprinted by permission from the Fall 2004 issue of The Natural Farmer, the quarterly newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.


Treating Dairy Cows Naturally: Thoughts and Strategies

Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.,
Paradise Publications, 2004, ISBN 1-929678-05-3; 264 pp.; $34.95

December 9 , 2004: Here at long last is a comprehensive resource book for farmers and veterinarians alike on the treatment of health problems in dairy cattle, from an organic perspective. The author is a practicing vet in Lancaster County, PA, where 60 of his 90 client dairy farms are certified organic. The book contains a wealth of information drawing from homeopathic, herbal and conventional methods, among others. There’s also plenty of straightforward advice on nutrition and good general management practices.

As indicated by the book’s title, Dr. Karreman’s “thoughts” figure almost as prominently as his “strategies”, and this is by no means a weakness! He opens the book with discussions on the different approaches to dairy farming, contrasting the low-input grass-based methods favored by most organic farmers with the high-input, grain-based approach common on conventional dairies. From the start, he shows his holistic stripes by discussing not just the fact that well-managed grazing cattle are healthier than their confined sisters, but that grass-based farms confer social benefits in terms of more sustainable use of resources (less reliance on the oil industry for growing grain) and a family-friendly as opposed to cheap labor-reliant infrastructure. There is a section on grazing basics, sprinkled with the author’s insights on certain grazing practices as they relate to cow health and environmental quality.

Next comes a discussion on certified organic dairying, and I, for one, am delighted with the author’s balanced treatment of this subject. He takes a look at some of the advantages of going organic before stepping firmly on his well-earned soapbox to expound upon the “health care dilemmas” of certified organic dairies, particularly under the new rules of the National Organic Program. Simply put, when a certified organic cow gets sick (believe it or not, this happens!), the natural therapies allowed for organic producers can often be effective. BUT, in some cases, a cow can be so completely overwhelmed by an acute illness that to refrain from using the organic-prohibited conventional drugs would likely lead to permanent injury or death. Dr. Karreman explains that although the NOP directs certified farmers and their vets to take such emergency measures when needed, there is virtually zero incentive to do so, because once the cow has received that antibiotic, she may never produce organic milk on that farm ever again. She must be sold. (Before the NOP took effect, there were very long withdrawal times for dairy cows that received certain drugs – up to a year – but at least a farmer could hold onto a very special cow if he chose to.) He points out that the total ban on antibiotics was a consumer-driven change, but he believes that if consumers were to stand there in the barn along with vet, farmer, and suffering animal, many consumers would reconsider the cow’s mandatory permanent banishment from the herd.

The chapters listing particular disorders toward the end of the book are worth their weight in gold. Even a beginner with little time can look up a specific concern and understand what the condition means as well as the options for treating it. I was impressed by the thoroughness of this section, which contains everything from calving to flies to immunizations. Several relatively obscure disorders that I have seen in practice but never had occasion to read about are discussed here as well. Likely they are not written about in mainstream farm journals (which are sent “free” to farmers because they are bought through advertising) because there is no lucrative cure to sell. Even farmers with no intention of “going organic” can benefit from this book.

While most of the book is geared toward farmers, there are some in-depth sections on homeopathy and herbs, which strike me as more for an advanced practitioner. It is, in fact, a book I plan to lend to my conventionally trained vet, if I think I can do without it for a month! For new family cow owners, this book is an excellent resource, but doesn’t replace the Grohman or Van Loon books and the help of an experienced neighbor. As far as readability goes, if phrases like “displaced abomasums”, “toxic metritis”, and “hypertonic saline” leave you without a clue, it could be a challenge to slog through this one. On the other hand, for those of us with ten or twenty vivid memories about every kind of illness mentioned, this book (with its detailed descriptions of all manner of odors and discharges) does emphatically not make good mealtime reading!!

Dr. Karreman ends the book with a short discussion on the production and regulation of raw milk. He remains balanced and reasonable as always, neither overlooking the dangers of poorly produced raw milk, nor throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. He proposes a new set of standards, like the organic standards, which could be used to identify “Pure Milk” as a nutritionally superior product. “Pure Milk” would have to pass multiple tests of its bacteriological quality, similar to what is done in most raw milk licensing states, but that’s not all. “Pure Milk” proponents also recommend annual testing of the whole herd for a number of communicable diseases, more extensive water quality tests, and a minimal amount of grain fed, to list just a few items. It is good to see a vet whose vision of health encompasses not just the animal being treated, but also the wider society of people who reap the benefits (or detriments) of that animal’s health.

So there you have it, three thumbs up for Treating Dairy Cows Naturally. Unless I missed something big, this book is by far the best of its kind yet published. So much information, perhaps a bit chaotically organized, but the index works fine. Dr. Karreman is not married to the dogma of any one school of medicine or farming but makes use of sound reasoning and considerable expertise to help the farmer choose a wise course of treatment. That’s just the vet I’d want to have beside me in the barn.

Gina Robinson is a dairy farmer in Hardwick, Massachusetts, and a member of the NOFA/Mass Raw Milk Campaign.