broke out on several listserves in response to Dr.
Hubert Karreman’s story in the May issue of
NewFarm.org titled When
it comes to animal health and welfare, there are
worse things than antibiotics. Dr. Karreman
attempted to respond to a host of comments, most
of them from organic advocates and farmers who feel
the ban on antibiotic for cows kept in the milking
herd should be maintained.
Most argued that any allowance for keeping animals
treated with a synthetic antibiotic—even
tightly limited use—would lower consumer
support for organic dairy, decrease organic farmer
zeal in pursuing animal wellness, discourage needed
research into alternative treatments or constitute
one more place where technology introduced for
a good reason could have profound unintended consequences.
This story is an edited and updated summary from
Dr. Karreman for NewFarm.org readers, created
from earlier posts on the Odairy listserve.
I obviously whacked a hornet nest in The New Farm article
by discussing the “sacred cow” issue of organics
—antibiotics (or rather the lack thereof). I am not
at all surprised by the responses, with almost all presenting
good arguments to keep the status quo.
Let me emphasize that it is not my intention to try to change
the rule; that would be a monumental undertaking. Actually,
the rule—such as it is—has stimulated me to develop
reasonably effective therapies and led me to endeavor to begin
clinical research in this area. However, if only for ethical
considerations, I do believe open and frank discussions are
To be honest, I believe the antibiotic issue was somewhat
swept under the rug by the early adopters (by writing a nice-sounding
rule), and, for some reason, it is still not easy to talk
about it. Why? Don’t we always claim in the natural-farming
world that sunshine is a good disinfectant? And since animal
welfare is coming to the fore in both conventional and organic
agriculture, why can’t we at least discuss the antibiotic
issue, if only for intellectual and ethical reasons?
I’ve driven around an ever-increasing amount of organic
farms for the past 12 years with this issue spontaneously
arising any time of day or night. To be clear, probably 95
percent of the time, organic cows really, truly do live a
great life. I’m just concerned of the 5 percent that
my colleagues and I are called out to examine.
We simply cannot ethically sweep them under the carpet when
talking about how happy the cows are on organic farms.
Consumers want humane care
The organic program is a marketing program, and it is the
consumers who should be driving the boat. The farmers who
have opted to be in organics have inherently more responsibility
to the whims of the organic consumer than conventional farmers
do to consumers of commodities. I believe my non-farm background
certainly plays into my views on the humane treatment of animals.
But I have to admit that working directly with livestock for
the past 22 years has unfortunately somewhat numbed and hardened
me to the realities of what can happen with livestock during
any day or night.
My views of what constitutes true humane treatment of animals
are probably close, if not the same, as most folks I still
know in the suburbs and city. I would contend that most of
them like to support organics for a cleaner environment, enhanced
animal welfare and for foods void of extra pesticide sprays.
Here’s a rational, potential solution: if the cow can’t
ever go in the milk tank again, why can’t she at least
become a nurse cow? Her milk may be much better quality in
the long term than some of the two- and three-teated, mastitic,
lopsided-udder nurse cows out there now [on organic farms].
Would the organic consumer object to an allowance for a veterinarian
to treat a cow with an antibiotic in a diagnosed emergency
and then let her be a nurse cow?
I think organic consumers should be educated more about organic
livestock care, then given a chance to weigh in on this issue.
Isn’t there an organic consumer association that could
administer a survey if dairy farmers and vets put one together
that laid out the full range of concerns?
Ban hurts small farms the most
As for the thought that allowing a rare use of an antibiotic
(administered only by a veterinarian) would help the larger
farms, that argument is flawed. The absolute ban on antibiotics
hurts the smallest farms the most. Why? Because they don’t
usually have a ready replacement for the single cow booted
out of the 32 in the herd. Large farms can easily give the
antibiotic, even under current rules, get rid of the cow,
and have a new replacement in the herd the same day.
Whether or not you want to listen to me or trust my experience,
the small-herd owners are the ones who wait the longest and
try every possible thing that is foisted upon them, either
through catalogues or phone consults, in order to not loose
that one cow.
The whole antibiotic issue comes down to this: When do you
switch to an antibiotic in order to help the cow and/or relieve
pain and suffering? The smaller the herd, the longer it goes
until it may be too late, and then the antibiotic doesn’t
work anyway. (Then the farmer immediately believes that antibiotics
are useless in general, when maybe they waited too long to
Unfortunately, many small farmers have been essentially brainwashed
into believing that certain modes of treatment will work—even
though there’s not a shred of logical evidence). I know
I am the “wet blanket” on a lot of people’s
fires in the organic world, but one thing I will never be
found guilty of is creating false hope in the minds of farmers
who are trying to take care of their animals the best they
can. It is when the small farmers cling to anything so as
to not use an antibiotic that animals can, and do, suffer.
And I believe this is a direct consequence of the rule.
Where is enforcement?
Then who is to turn in a farmer who repeatedly waits too
long in trying all sorts of natural treatments, despite direct
examination from a medically trained professional. I certainly
offer an array of alternative treatments, but when I mention
it is time to switch to an antibiotic, why do the small farmers
feel the need to still keep on trying with natural things?
Why do I learn when I stop by (at no charge) to check on
the cow a day or two later, only to hear that so-and-so in
some other state said to try such-and-such, but the cow is
obviously not a happy cow by any stretch—often times
Finally, could someone please explain to me why the Canadians,
in setting up their national standards, have rejected the
U.S. ban on antibiotics in organics when they had both the
United States and the European systems to choose from? What
is so different about Canadian society in regard to their
views of farm animals?
It comes down to care
What it comes down to is for a person to be highly attentive
to their animals' needs—and not to run out to the fields
on the tractor when an animal needs treatment. In organic
livestock healthcare, that means spending the extra time observing
so you can jump on problems early before they can fester.
It also means not waiting too long to call in a local veterinarian.
When a farmer at a distance calls and asks me for advice,
I'll always first ask who the local vet is. After giving the
farmer some really basic information, I will emphasize that
for more specific details, they should have their local vet
call me. About 80 to 90 percent of the time, the farmer will
immediately say that their vet is not really into natural
treatments or is somewhat adverse to them.
I grant you, most vets don't know about natural treatments.
This is probably why a lot of organic farmers may wait until
it's too late to call in their vet (for fear of conventional
treatments being the only ones to be recommended). I can assure
you that my focus these days is to train veterinarians on
organic treatments. For this audience, I work from mainly
a rational approach (biologics and botanicals), although I
talk about homeopathy to them since they will see it on organic
What I have been consistently finding is that when a farmer’s
local vet does call me, we generally have a really great conversation.
We can establish a nice relationship that allows the local
vet to deal with that particular situation and feel very comfortable
calling me back whenever needed.
Reaching out to conventional vets
After all, I am of no real use as a practitioner to a farmer
in a different state for an emergency on any given weekday,
whereas the local vet can certainly be. I don't charge vets
for consults—though I should—since I feel it is
my responsibility to help bridge the gap between the conventional
world to the world of organics, with all its great points
as well as some of its difficult-to-understand points.
It's been working out real well over the past year, so please
don't underrate the potential of your vet to want to understand
the way you are farming. They just may need a different angle
(coming from a colleague like myself).
For what it's worth, there were 18 dairy vets at the four-hour
workshop at University of Minnesota last month who wanted
to learn about organics—five of them from the Pacific
Northwest. This month I'll be talking for a whole day to the
Vermont Veterinary Medical Association and, in September,
at the vet school in Prince Edward Island. This is not to
toot my own horn but to show that conventional vets are indeed
interested in organic farming and in helping you to care for
your animals, without antibiotics and other prohibited materials.
On the basic question of how much suffering is too much,
that probably depends somewhat on whether one believes in
allowing certain degrees of suffering at all, and probably
on certain religious convictions regarding possible hierarchies
One of my main beliefs in natural treatments is to make an
animal feel good enough to eat, so that, hopefully, she can
eat her way out of the problem. Acute-care treatments that
help animals eat in early stages of stress, without antibiotics,
should be welcomed by all of us. Focusing even more on healthy
housing, nutrition, pasture management and natural products
to enhance immune function will reduce these acute cases and
move organic dairy to the next level—with happier cows,
farmers and customers.