believe there was a fundamental mistake made by
the US organic community when it rejected all
antibiotics, both sub-therapeutic and therapeutic.
May 11, 2007: I spend my life around livestock
and farmers, learning how to bring health to animals and greater
understanding to the people who care for them. What I see
in organic livestock systems encourages me in many ways, but
I’m troubled by the absolute prohibition against antibiotics
in the system.
Organic standards must continue to focus farmer attention
on wellness, prevention and stress-reduction, but farmers
need to consider a definable but rare use of an antibiotic
within organics when it’s the humane thing to do.
The rise of antibiotics
Antibiotics, when first discovered, were truly miraculous.
Age-old infectious disease could be reversed and a person
could become healthy again. Life-threatening conditions such
as bacterial pneumonia, post-partum womb infections (puerperal
fever), abdominal infections (peritonitis) and generalized
blood infections (septicemia) no longer condemned people to
premature death. Other conditions such as bone infections
could also be effectively treated without limb amputation.
Unfortunately, the miracle cures that made antibiotics rightfully
famous also made physicians less reliant on other methods
of treatment. Rather than integrating antibiotics into existing
modes of therapy, they became dependent upon them, and anti-infective/anti-bacterial
biologics and botanicals were discarded. Moreover, non-life-threatening
bacterial infections such as minor ear infections and skin
conditions became routinely treated with antibiotics.
Use of antibiotics, in both therapeutic (prescribed to respond
to appropriate symptoms) and sub-therapeutic situations also
became the norm for livestock agriculture, since antibiotics
proved to be useful in reducing disease prevalence as well
as promoting growth. This led to the intensification of livestock
agriculture as we know it today. The widespread use of antibiotics
to treat non-life-threatening conditions in both human and
veterinary medicine may be the cause of the resistance patterns
seen in modern medicine.
Organic agriculture regulations in the United States explicitly
reject all applications of antibiotics for livestock. This
is largely due to early organic producers listening to the
fears of organic consumers regarding general over-reliance
on antibiotics in agriculture. Those fears are still present
US organic prohibition unique
I believe there was a fundamental mistake made by the US
organic community when it rejected all antibiotics, both sub-therapeutic
and therapeutic. It is very likely that the sub-therapeutic
use of antibiotics for undiagnosed disease control—
as well as growth promotion—is what organic consumers
find so troublesome. It is unlikely that an organic consumer
(whether highly sensitive to environmental or animal welfare
concerns) would actually want there to be punishment for treating
an individual animal with a therapeutic antibiotic for life-threatening
infectious disease diagnosed by a veterinarian. No other country
than the United States has an absolute ban (i.e. permanent
removal from production) for the therapeutic use of an antibiotic
for an individual animal that is ill.
Proponents of the absolute ban quickly point to the regulation,
7CFR205.238(c)(7), that says:
“The producer of an organic livestock operation
must not withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in
an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate
medications must be used to restore an animal to health
when methods acceptable to organic production fail. Livestock
treated with a prohibited substance must be clearly identified
and shall not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically
While part of this statement certainly sounds good, there
is a penalty for carrying out such good will to the animals
under our care. Upon close inspection of this regulation,
one can formulate the following question: Who is to say what
medication will be used and when will it be started in the
In order to avoid the penalty associated with antibiotics,
one’s philosophy or comfort level of alternative medical
treatment (including herbs, homeopathy, acupuncture or other
methods) will likely steer the initial course of treatment.
If treatment is successful with the alternative treatments,
great; but if not, then valuable time may have been lost in
order to “restore an animal to health” as the
Anecdotes are not enough
Proponents of the complete ban often say (and rightly so)
that since organic farmers are getting paid premiums for their
products, they owe it to the animal to use whatever it takes
to treat the animal. Indeed, organic consumers expect a higher
level of care and compassion for the animals that produce
the product they are buying on the shelf.
Unfortunately, many organic farmers grasp at any treatment
that is promoted simply to avoid using antibiotics. Organic
farmers who are looking to use non-antibiotic approaches to
heal infectious disease need to be extremely careful about
what they choose to use—or to whom they listen. There
are many anecdotal incidents of success from individuals,
but anecdotes are limited to the farm where they were applied—usually
with no thought to what other factors may potentially have
caused the animal to heal.
In essence, when it comes to an individual
animal needing truly prompt, effective treatment for a
serious infection on an organic farm, the US organic rule
may compromise animal welfare.
People just learning about organic agriculture often know
that antibiotics are not allowed, but then innocently ask
how much extra time the animals have to stay out of production
if antibiotics are used. The simple answer is: forever. Under
the current USDA organic rule, an animal must be immediately
removed from any further involvement in the organic system
once it is treated with an antibiotic. This rule applies to
any age animal, not just adult animals, and renders the animal
of no value within the organic marketplace. (It can still
be used or sold in non-organic livestock channels, but at
a greatly discounted value.)
In essence, when it comes to an individual animal needing
truly prompt, effective treatment for a serious infection
on an organic farm, the US organic rule may compromise animal
welfare. For instance, an unborn calf can’t be certified
organic if its mother is treated with antibiotics during the
last trimester of pregnancy. Moreover, a calf delivered by
Cesarean section is not even allowed to drink its own mother’s
milk if the mother has been treated with an antibiotic, since
animals must consume only organic feed for their entire life.
(To not use an antibiotic after a C-section could be easily
be construed as malpractice due to the very high probability
of an abdominal infection.)
“Just say No” doesn’t
The absolute prohibition on antibiotic usage brings up many
challenges—challenges not only to the farmer managing
the animals but also to the veterinarian called in to treat
a sick animal. While there tends to be less stress on organic
livestock (likely due to decreased production demands, higher
forage diets and grazing), there still can be the occasional
animal that, for any number of reasons, may become very ill
due to an infection. Reasons may include stressors on the
immune system such as calving or adding a new animal into
an established group. If the immune system is depressed, infectious
problems can arise more easily. Therefore preventing stress
is very important in the organic system if we are to avoid
reaching for antibiotics.
Any health-compromising condition encountered
on a conventional farm can be encountered on an organic
farm. My experience shows, however, there will be dramatically
less occurrence of conditions needing veterinary attention
on organic farms.
The immune system functions optimally when animals are in
robust health resulting from sound nutrition, continual access
to circulating fresh air, dry bedding, shelter from the elements
and grazing well-managed pastures. It should be noted that
even with somewhat less stress on organic livestock, any health-compromising
condition encountered on a conventional farm can be encountered
on an organic farm. My experience shows, however, there will
be dramatically less occurrence of conditions needing veterinary
attention on organic farms.
A major concept to understand is that not all infectious
problems require an antibiotic—and in actuality, only
a few do. In my experience, the following three conditions
do need prompt antibiotic treatment: peritonitis, bone infections
and when there is infection in two major organs (i.e. lungs
and uterus, etc.). Withholding antibiotics in these kinds
of instances is not only blindly naïve but also illegal
according to 205.238(c)(7).
Other infectious problems, if attended to early in the process,
can respond to biological and botanical anti-infective agents.
These can include: mastitis, uncomplicated pneumonia, diarrhea,
metritis, pinkeye, foot rot, abscesses, kidney infections,
fevers of unknown origin, and so on. The key is early treatment.
When farming organically, it is imperative to be committed
to jumping on problems as early as possible. There is just
no other way to handle problems with livestock if antibiotics
are to be avoided as first-line defense. The real question
is: Exactly when might antibiotics be the most appropriate
Making it real
In order to appreciate the complexity of addressing an infectious
problem, a real-life scenario is helpful. Pneumonia is a good
example because its illustration can include ways of prevention
but also treatment in case it does occur. Pneumonia can be
a major concern for farmers transitioning to organics, as
well as for the veterinarians assisting them. Additionally,
pneumonia can easily become a life-threatening situation if
not addressed early and properly.
Pneumonia can occur in picture-perfect, fresh heifers that
have been outside until just prior to calving and then brought
inside to join the milking string, especially in tie-stall
situations. The rapid mixing with older animals in housing
with poorly circulating air can give rise to respiratory problems.
Risk of infection in this scenario is often elevated since
the animal’s immune system becomes suppressed from the
internal hormonal changes that occur near calving time. Additionally,
abrupt feed changes and ensiled feeds with invisible molds
or mycotoxins may upset her digestive system and disrupt normal
homeostasis (dynamic wellness), increasing the chances of
not being able to withstand infectious challenges.
Young calves can also be afflicted with respiratory problems.
Pneumonia is common in young pre-weaned and just-weaned calves
which are housed indoors, especially when they share poorly
circulating airspace with nearby older animals. Outdoor hutches
or age-group housing offer continuous fresh air to animals.
Along with dry bedding, outdoor venues are excellent in preventing
I like to remind farmers that it is
better to have a live cow than a dead organic one.
However, respiratory problems can also happen soon after
older calves—having been outside all summer on pasture
during their first year of life—are brought back into
a barn in late autumn. In this case, the calves may be parasitized
with stomach worms (strongyles) which will draw down their
defenses, making it likely they will succumb to respiratory
problems when placed back into a barn shared by other animals.
Less commonly, other species (like pigs) that are allowed
to freely wander around barns can track germs from one area
Obviously, preventing animals from experiencing poorly circulating
air, ensiled feeds with molds or mycotoxins or becoming parasitized
is critical to prevent many problems in general. Even if vaccinated,
an animal can still become ill for reasons never to be fully
Recognizing symptoms to scale response
The cardinal signs of pneumonia are fever (above 102.5°
F), increased respiratory rate, cough, slowness to eat and
a somewhat-distant stare. If the fever is high (~106°
F), it may be viral at the time and respond well to non-antibiotic
treatments to stimulate, as well as support, its immune system.
When listening to the lungs:
- If there are raspy or rough sounds, a non-antibiotic
approach can be considered.
- If abscesses are detected by stethoscope or the animal
is “belly breathing” (more belly than chest
movement), go immediately to antibiotics.
- If there is another infection somewhere in the body (udder,
uterus, etc.), go to the antibiotic.
Always be prepared to use an antibiotic if no improvement
occurs within 48 hours of using natural approaches. I like
to remind farmers that it is better to have a live cow than
a dead organic one.
Various botanicals have been proven to make the immune system
more robust in overcoming infection—garlic, goldenseal
and ginseng immediately come to mind. Biologics (therapies
derived from living organisms) can actively stimulate the
non-specific arm of the immune system and also supply the
animal with antibodies while vitamins, minerals and botanicals
support the animal in general. Animals with pneumonia need
to be watched closely. If a further decline is noticed, antibiotics
need to be started.
In groups of coughing calves that are bright and alert and
still eating (the earliest stage of a respiratory problem),
natural treatments can work quite well as long as the other
basic management tools of fresh air, dry bedding and sound
nutrition are practiced. However, it is usually the one calf
that caught the farmer’s attention that is depressed,
laying down and coughing that should receive antibiotic treatment.
Animals treated by natural means tend to recover more slowly
but should be improving continuously.
So, once an animal displays symptoms that indicate infection,
how exactly is a farmer to know when to choose between natural
treatment methods and an antibiotic? The farmer actually doesn’t
need to know—this should only be done in consultation
with the local veterinarian who has personally examined the
What the farmer needs to know is when to call in the veterinarian.
For the sake of animals on organic farms, sooner is better.