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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care November 2010

Hi Folks,

Recently I’ve been reading books, watching films and listening to lectures about various perspectives of animal care. One of the books, “Thinking in Pictures” by Temple Grandin, really struck a chord with me. The film about her life (“Temple”) shows Dr. Grandin overcoming challenges due to her autism and utilizing her gift to understand how animals perceive the world around them. I also recently watched “What’s Organic About Organic?” (directed by Shelly Rogers) which helped focus me in various ways to what initially attracted me to organics. In Ontario I listened to an excellent presentation by Professor Gary Francione on what the legal status of animals is and how this can affect the way we view and treat animals in society in general. Listening to Professor Bernie Rollin also has caused me to think more deeply about how we interact with animals (specifically farm animals). All these educational encounters have stirred up some life-long feelings and beliefs I’ve had prior to and during my time working with dairy cows. In regards to modern farm animals, I completely agree with Dr. Grandin’s statement: “Looking at those animals [in a feedlot] I realized that none of them would even exist if human beings hadn’t bred them into being…..we brought these animals here so we’re responsible for them….We owe them a decent life and a decent death, and their lives should be as low stress as possible”   from Animals in Translation.

For many readers, perhaps the most straight forward way to bring up caring for animals might be to consider Proverbs 12:10a - “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal”

As a clinical veterinarian and being highly aware of animal care on organic dairy farms, I felt a certain responsibility to help write the Animal Welfare recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). While I am no longer on the NOSB, I watched recently as the current Board met in Madison, Wisconsin and continued to work on the recommendation by discussing stocking density, transport and slaughter for organic livestock. Most organic farmers recognize the need to ensure organic customers – those folks who are willingly paying hefty premiums – that animals are receiving husbandry, living conditions and health care way beyond the bare minimums.  Here are some topics from my Health Care Strategies for Organic Dairy Cattle talks:

Animal welfare assessments - 2 ways to go about it:
(1) Focus on entire herd and the percent of the herd that has a problem (lameness, cleanliness, body condition, skin condition, etc.) This provides what are called “outcome oriented results” and usually identifies weaknesses in the system to correct.  It is usually relatively easy to change the systematic flaw.
(2) Focus on individual animals. This relies more on individual intent and follow through of the farmer guiding the action. This can be scored but it is more difficult to change a person’s attitude and motivation towards their animals.

Differing views on Care and Compassion:
If we try to see the world through the eyes of the animals we care for and from whom we derive our livelihood, farmers should feel compelled to take the best care of their animals as possible. Unfortunately for farmers, non-farm people can become very nosey about farming issues while having no real clue as to the basics and realities of farm life. Their views gives rise to an expectation that farmers should bond with their cattle in the same way that many non-farmers bond with their pets. Much worse in my opinion, however, is a farmer who knows all about farm life and shows little care or compassion for the creatures s/he takes care of. It is amazing how the same symptoms can give quite different response times and actions by farmers. Unfortunately, it is too often that humans (and not just farmers) doing repetitive work become numb to what is around them and don’t give needed attention to problems since they are busy running around just keeping up. Too often there is just reflexive and reactive action instead of looking ahead to prevent problems. Having a farmer whose primary focus is conscientiously putting the welfare of individual farm animals above profit/loss is rare but refreshing.

It is indeed a pleasure to see smaller organic farms that allow for very close interaction with animals, developing close relationships and feelings for each individual animal. Yet sometimes the sheer workload may not always translate into top notch routine needs always getting accomplished. In contrast are larger organic farms that don’t have the same “personal touch” due to sheer numbers of animals but do have standard operating procedures in place which are usually carried out, some might say in a mechanical way, but nonetheless carried out.

Being immersed in the organic sector, I often get questions thrown at me during talks, such as: “Regulations that prohibit antibiotics mean animals will suffer!” This statement assumes that conventional farms always reach for antibiotics in time – but do they? In truth, antibiotics don’t work every time and the true basis to healing is to have a functional and effective immune system. Focus on that first. Nor are antibiotics always appropriate. For instance, in hot coliform mastitis, it’s been shown that only 30% of the time will there be bacteria present to which antibiotics can work. Thus about 70% of the time the bacteria are already gone and it is the endotoxins they released that are the cause of the animal’s illness. How do we know which animal has the bacteria and which one doesn’t? Simply put, we don’t. So should we use the antibiotic or not? It is truly an open question. Additionally, it is my opinion that there are not as many situations requiring antibiotics as farmers and veterinarians are led to believe. However, because antibiotics are such a mainstay in agriculture, not many people allow themselves to think outside “the box” (actually the antibiotic bottle). It’s truly unfortunate – for animals, people and society in general. Here is a safe statement: withholding an antibiotic, if it is the appropriate treatment, could compromise animal welfare. But who is to say what the appropriate treatment is and when it should be applied? Vet, farmer, organic customer, inspector, certifier? Not an easy answer. Interestingly, in Denmark antibiotics can only be used to dry off cows if a milk culture is taken and it’s shown which antibiotic will be effective (if any). This should be embraced here in the US.  Unfortunately, whenever antibiotics are freely allowed people will always reach for them reflexively. There will be no real incentive to research functional alternatives to antibiotics if there are not more stringent rules placed upon their use – as there is in organic livestock agriculture. And it is specifically due to the “no antibiotics” rule in organics that I have been developing consistently effective functional alternatives to antibiotics. 

Consider the Daily Life of the Vast Majority of Animals
While I do agree that animal suffering should not take place at any time in any livestock system, the suffering of one animal that has lived its life grazing and eating high forage diets but is not given antibiotics in time is a separate issue than herds living with routine hormone injections, standing on concrete, rations causing twisted stomachs and subacute rumen acidosis, but having antibiotics for timely use to treat illness. Both issues need attention and active intervention.     

I like to finish all my talks by emphasizing that while odd things can (and do) happen in organics ……. healthy soils, high forage diets, good ventilation, dry bedding and vigorous grazing make for healthy cattle. Fortunately, this can apply to conventional dairy farms as well.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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