Organic Farming—It’s Good for Cows Too

The organic difference was almost immediately apparent ...


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

Why Organic?
Franklin transitioned her dairy farm to organic in 2003, after finding 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.”

The organic difference was almost immediately apparent, says Franklin, who watched the incidence of illness and the cost of veterinary care drop dramatically. Before converting to organic, the veterinarian made monthly visits to examine and treat sick animals; now, she says, the vet stops by only occasionally to care for animals whose health problems cannot be managed using homeopathic remedies.

Hubert Karreman, DVM, a dairy veterinarian in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, offers a similarly positive view. “I’ve worked with thousands of animals in the course of my career, 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.

Dairy farmer Edward Eugair of Morning Meadows Farm in Florence, Vermont, has seen a noticeable decline in animal illness over the five years the farm has been certified organic. “Our cows experience less mastitis and have hardly any foot problems anymore,” he notes. “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, organic farmers attribute positive changes in cows’ temperament 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,” says Eugair.

Franklin has also noticed a difference in her cows’ overall demeanor 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’ve ever worked with.”

Benefits of Pasturing
Douglas Turner, owner and operator of Simplicity Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont, is 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, leading to an improvement in the animals’ overall health. “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,” he explains.

Rod Morrison, cattle rancher and CEO of Rocky Mountain Organic Beef, says, “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 quality pasture, a large number of watering holes, and the freedom to “behave the way nature intended them to.” Not only are there fewer health problems and vet bills, but you also see “a group of animals that are in excellent physical condition and at ease with themselves and each other. It’s beautiful.”

Respect for Animals
For Juan Velez, MV, MS, DACT, senior vice president of Farm Operations at Aurora Organic Dairy, “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, DVM, 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.”

From Dr. Tikofsky’s standpoint, organic also promotes animal health through its understanding of and support for natural behaviors. “Cows are designed to spend much of their time outside on the pasture, where they can acquire the nutrients they need to survive. . . . [T]he organic system makes access to the outdoors a priority,” providing the high-forage diet cows need to maintain digestive health. Dr. Karreman adds, “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.”

The organic requirement that livestock have access to the outdoors appears to help reduce several of their common health problems. Studies have found that cows raised organically are less prone to lameness and foot disease, due in large part because they move about on pasture, which is softer and therefore easier on their legs than concrete. Other research shows that animals (such as organic cows) with high-forage diets suffer from fewer instances of mastitis and tend to enjoy greater longevity than animals whose diets are more grain based.

What Certification Means
Both Drs. Velez and Tikofsky agree that the organic system, which is governed by a set of strict and enforceable rules, helps ensure that a basic commitment to animal health is made and upheld. Because organic prohibits the use of antibiotics (except in circumstances where an animal’s health or survival is in jeopardy), this system supports and promotes a preventative approach to health care that benefits animals and farmers alike.

Most notably, organic compels farmers to establish a close relationship with each animal. Cultivated through frequent interaction and continual observation, this relationship 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 common illnesses like mastitis and pneumonia. Moreover, regulations help organic farmers avoid reactive, antibiotic-based treatments, which can be costly, jeopardize their animals’ organic status, and have been implicated in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among humans.

Need for More Study
Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of comparative research on animal health in organic and conventional systems. “At this point, we simply don’t have data that conclusively shows that organically raised animals are healthier than their conventionally raised counterparts,” says Dr. Velez. But progress is being made on this front. Thanks to a grant made available through the Northeast region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, researchers are comparing the health of cows on 30 to 40 certified organic farms in Lancaster County to that of animals on similar-sized conventional farms located close by. Also in the works is research to expand the information available about organic alternatives to traditional, antibiotic-based treatments for animal health problems.

Over his 20-year career, Dr. Karreman has dedicated much of his time to learning about natural treatments, developing a number of botanical and biologic-based remedies for common livestock ailments. “We’ve come a long way since the early days of organic, and . . . 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.”

According to Dr. Tikofsky, a multistate study will compare the overall well-being of organic cows with their conventionally raised counterparts by examining milk production and quality, lameness, mastitis, and other indicators of animal health. “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 scientific research, organic animal welfare is likely to get a boost in the regulatory arena. According to Dr. Karreman, who chairs the Livestock Committee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), this issue is poised to become its central focus. “Having successfully developed a series of proposed aquaculture standards, we are now ready to tackle animal welfare head-on.”

In practice, 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,” he adds.