Whacking the hornet nest: Talking about humane cow care is a good thing, isn’t it?
If there’s a real dialogue, consumers can make a more informed choice, conventional vets will keep learning about alternatives and organic dairy will improve.

By Dr. Hubert J. Karreman
Posted June 15, 2007

editor's NOTE:
Discussion 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 always healthy.

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 start treatment!)

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 visibly worse?

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 farms.

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 of species.

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.