Organic livestock production offers challenges, opportunities

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Attendees learned about the challenges of treating livestock on organic farms during a session at the AVMA Annual Convention in Honolulu.

"In general, all natural materials are allowed, and all synthetics are prohibited, unless the (National Organic Standards Board) is petitioned by the industry or individuals, and the substance is subsequently allowed by the Secretary (of Agriculture)," explained presenter Dr. Hubert J. Karreman, a dairy veterinarian in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Karreman operates a dairy practice called Penn Dutch Cow Care and works with approximately 80 organic dairy farms. He serves on the NOSB and has participated on the AVMA task force that developed the Association's revised Guidelines for Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Karreman's session was especially timely, considering it was held one day after the Department of Agriculture proposed to permit additional substances in organic livestock production (see JAVMA, Sept. 1, 2006.)

"With the potential inclusion of the materials on the (Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), the emergency treatment of organic livestock to relieve pain and suffering is greatly enhanced," he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Karreman said, veterinarians are dealing with a short list of approved synthetic materials when treating livestock on organic farms. If an unapproved synthetic product is used to treat an ill animal, the animal must be removed from the herd and may no longer be part of organic production. Appropriate medical care cannot be denied an animal in an attempt to retain its certified organic status.

During the session, Dr. Karreman explained some alternative treatments that are successful in cows. Cows with clinical pneumonia, for example, can be treated with a combination of biologics and botanicals. He advocated stimulating the nonspecific immune system; augmenting the immune system with specific, passive antibodies; and using botanicals with known antimicrobial and immunomodulating effects. Pairing these efforts with proper hygiene practices, such as providing dry bedding, fresh air, and proper feed, he said, appeared to regularly cure pneumonia.

Dr. Karreman gathered much of the information he uses for treating livestock from old veterinary textbooks, which give scientific reports on many formerly used plant- and mineral-derived antiseptics and germicides. He balances the old information with current, peer-reviewed journal articles regarding plant medicines and biologics. Detailed information on the regulatory side of organic livestock production can be found on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Web site,

Looking ahead, Dr. Karreman said, "I believe that the natural treatments that may be found to be clinically effective in organic livestock could spill over and be a benefit to conventional livestock as well."

He noted that society has increasingly sought less reliance on routine use of antimicrobials in livestock. "People in society, whether they're veterinarians or consumers, think the organic dairy industry is really interesting, and they want to see it grow," he said.