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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care October 2010

Hi Folks,

Isn’t it exciting when a friend tells you that something worked great for a hard to treat illness? How the friend decided to give something a try and BINGO, it worked! Indeed, it is encouraging and we immediately feel empowered that, yes, we too can lick a bad problem just by using a super cool sounding product.

For sure, these kinds of successes happen and having been a herdsman who applied natural treatments and seeing them work well, I can honestly say that seeing a result easily leads to believing in a certain product.

Yet shouldn’t we be at least a little careful in interpreting true cause and effect from an accidental happy association? For example, if I give a treatment and the cow gets better, how do I really know that what I gave was what got the cow better? Did she self-cure? That certainly can happen. Or did the cow get better because of some factor that we had no clue was part of the picture?  Or did we do something at the same time as the other factor and it looked like what we did was the important part. That certainly can happen, too. Additionally, perhaps we can somehow perceive by intuition at some deeper level what we should be using for the problem and in doing so help get the animal corrected. That certainly can happen for some gifted people. Life and biology is extremely complex. In all of these cases, we, as caring persons taking action to help an animal needing help, we at least were part of whatever helped to get the cow better. Truly, I have always believed that the intent of the care taker is critically important. And that is very important for sure. So while we may not know what exactly got the cow better, we can see she got better and we were part of the picture by applying the treatment we did. That not only makes us feel good that we helped make a life better but it may lead to revelations about the things we are doing. All this certainly happened to me as a herdsman when using various natural treatments.

And yet, should we sometimes consider that there are different levels of proof regarding how well things work? One basic truth is that people won’t keep buying things that don’t work. However, just because people do keep buying things, that isn’t proof positive that those things are the main factor in a cow getting better. It certainly might be. And without doubt, many insights and solutions are definitely discovered out in the trenches when doing actual battle with difficult problem cases – especially seeing an animal get better when you know what the outcome would be if nothing had been done. This has certainly happened to me as a dairy veterinarian over the last 15 years with botanicals and therapeutic biologics. 

So, what are the levels of proof? At the most basic level it would be a simple testimonial from one person on one farm with one or a couple animals. Would this information apply to your farm? It just might; you could take a chance to try it out yourself. But it might be worthless just the same.  So you’ve wasted some money, there are worse things that could happen, right? The most solid information would be from a large numbers of cows across many different farms – all with the same condition, randomly selected to be either treated with the experimental product, treated with no treatment or treated with the known, standard product. Then see the results. This is how new prescription medicines are approved – across a large population to see if the active material was the real cause for the effect or if there might have been a happy coincidence instead.

Of course there is quite a middle ground between the two ends of the spectrum. The next level better than a simple testimonial is when there is a series of cases where it looks like there exists an association between a condition and something which is applied to it to treat it. But with no “controls” – animals not treated to see if they get better anyway despite not getting the treatment – we can’t be so sure. Better yet would be to challenge some animals in a highly controlled setting like a lab, trying to establish if a very specific treatment is effective against a very specific challenge (often experimentally induced). Better would be to see if a treatment appears to work in real field cases, yet allowing the person applying the treatment to also evaluate its effectiveness (much like a farmer using a treatment). This can be a problem in that the person calling the cow ill is also the person calling the cow better – and perhaps a different person would call the same cow not ill or not better. The best and most solid level of evidence would be to have a known level of naturally occurring infection, know what the natural cure rate is (such that if you do nothing, the cow will get better anyway), have a person outside the herd evaluate the cases, have yet a different person apply the treatments without knowing which treatments are which (the new one, the standard one or a fake non-treatment). To make it best, have enough numbers of cows to show that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the new treatment really, truly is effective: at least better than the natural cure rate and hopefully even better than, or at least equivalent to, the standard treatment. In food producing animals, there is the added question dealing with the safety of the compound and for how long it might linger in the animal that is producing the milk that is in the market tomorrow.

It is with these things in mind that agricultural veterinarians work to help make sure that treatments are safe and effective across many different field conditions in the vast majority of animals treated.  And this is perhaps also why enthusiastic natural-minded farmers are sometimes bummed out by their veterinarian not being as enthusiastic about natural treatments as they are, because extremely few natural treatments (if any) have gone through the same very standard testing that “regular” medicines. And yet, at least in my opinion as a former herdsman and natural-minded veterinarian, other field veterinarians should remain open to the possibility that natural methods and not only antibiotics may indeed be useful for commonly encountered infections in cows. For one thing, reflexively reaching antibiotics to treat problems can lead to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, society is demanding that not all answers lay in bottles of antibiotics.

A glowing testimonial or clinical trial is wonderful to listen to or to read about, but remember that information certainly can sound different simply by who is saying it and how they say it. There can be “cheer leaders” and “wet blankets” in favor of, or opposed to, certain methods of treatment. Folks will always more easily accept information which fits their world view - that is human nature. Real truth can be difficult to discern at times. One very wise farmer recently said to me that you can do lots of laboratory work and get something to work but it might not translate into the field while if you see something consistently work in regular life, it’ll probably work in the laboratory. This statement has a lot of practical insight.

So next time you hear a glowing testimonial, perhaps consider on how many different farms and animals the product was applied. On the other hand when someone gives technical information that was only done in a laboratory (and perhaps not even with animals but just in test tubes), consider if that information applies to your farm. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

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

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