Herd Health on Organic Dairy Farms

eOrganic author:

Lisa McCrory, Earthwise Farm and Forest

Herd Health: A Prevention Preamble

The only certain thing about animal diseases seemed to be man's inability to prevent or cure most of them. It was not until I had experienced these diseases in my own herd and started at the beginning in my attempt to eliminate and prevent them, instead of accepting the diseases and treating them as inevitable, that I discovered the root cause of them. Until in fact I discovered that there is only one disease of animals and its name is man!
~Turner, 1952 (p. 63)

Organic and ecological farming practices place strong emphases on preventive management strategies to maintain healthy herds and avoid costly visits from the veterinarian. Prevention starts from the soil up, building soils that are biologically active and contain a good balance of minerals and organic matter. With healthy soils in place, producers can provide high quality feed for their production animals. Meeting the nutritional needs of your livestock is only part of the equation, however. The animals will also need an environment that provides clean air, water, shelter, sunlight, freedom of movement, and pasture to graze. Healthy livestock are a reflection of a whole farm system, involving a number of elements to balance the quality life of healthy animals with commercial livestock production.

According to §205.239 of the National Organic Program (NOP) final rule (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2000), "The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals…" The rule delineates specific criteria, including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean dry bedding, and access to pasture for ruminants. All of these criteria contribute formidably to a good preventive management plan. In addition, establishing a good livestock handling system is important. Creating a team of advisors—such as your veterinarian, farmer mentors, a nutritionist, and other professionals—to whom you can turn for information is critical. Also, work closely with your certifier and make sure that you contact him before trying a new product (see Can I Use This Input on My Organic Farm? for more information) or implementing a new production practice.


Dairy cows are living, breathing, sentient creatures created to eat grass and turn it into milk…They, along with other ruminants, are here on earth to fill an extremely important ecological niche—to digest plant materials that we humans cannot.
~Karreman, 2006 (p. 3 )

Well-managed pasture will provide your cows with a ration high in nutrition from a diversity of grasses, clovers, and forbs. It will also provide the cow with the high forage ration she is designed to eat, with forages that are very digestible, maintaining a healthy rumen pH to support a healthy environment for the rumen microbes.

Plentiful, good-quality water is important too. A dairy cow consumes from 10 to more than 30 gallons of water per day, depending upon her body size, stage of lactation, and the season. Water is a significant portion of a cow’s daily intake, and making sure the water is clean and provided in quantities to meet the needs of your herd is critical. It is best to have water in the paddocks where the cows are grazing to allow them to focus their energy on harvesting forage. A water source located a distance from the pasture may encourage the whole herd to leave the pasture and get a drink of water at one time. This group dynamic does a few things that are not considered favorable for a healthy livestock operation: it distracts the cows from eating, it keeps some cows from getting a drink, and it results in concentrations of manure left around the water tub instead of where it is needed—in the pasture.

During the months outside of the growing season, your livestock should have daily access to the outdoors, sunlight, fresh air, clean, dry bedding, fresh water, and protection from inclement weather. A comfortable cow is a happy cow. Make sure that your cows have opportunities to lie down and chew their cud; if she does not have a clean, dry place to do this, with adequate space, then this could put unnecessary stress on the cow.

cow grazing
Cow grazing. Photo credit: Lisa McCrory, Earthwise Farm and Forest.

Know Your Cows

Good observational skills are important for an organic dairy operation. Taking the time each day to look for signs of health and signs of "dis-ease" in your herd is a worthwhile investment. This does not necessarily mean having to know the personality of each and every cow in the herd (although some producers do). It is, however, taking note of visible signs of unthriftiness or discomfort. Note healthy animals, too, to affirm what is working well and to identify livestock genetics within your herd that you want to build upon.

An animal that is unthrifty may first show changes in attitude. She may be nervous or jumpy, she may be depressed or off her feed, or her water consumption may be down. Maybe she is not chewing her cud. Perhaps she isn't laying down, or is laying down and not wanting to get up. Is she hanging out with the other cows when she is out on pasture, or is she off by herself? How does her manure look and what does her breath smell like? Signs of good health include a glossy coat, bright eyes, good body condition, good appetite, good milk production, low somatic cell count, alert disposition, and good mobility. The manure should not be too loose and shouldn’t have undigested grain in it. You can learn a lot about a cow’s health just by watching an animal in motion. So take the time to watch your animals each day; it may be the best 10 minutes you ever spend.

When entering known periods of stress such as calving, drying off, weaning, vaccinations, or significant changes to the feeding ration, it is always good to work preventatively and offer those animals nutritional supplements, probiotics, vitamin therapies, and/or kelp. Preventative measures will pay for themselves many times over when done right. Consult with your team to learn more about effective and/or organically approved methods.

A long-term health plan should be developed with the help of your veterinarian, your nutritionist, and/or your farmer mentors. This sholuld be described in your Organic System Plan (OSP), as part of your certification application and annual update. Your OSP must be reviewed and approved by your certifying agents. You also must implement a record-keeping system to track the health, production, and reproductive history of the livestock on the farm, as well as all feeds, feed additives, and health care inputs. With experience and records, every producer can gain insight into the relationship between soil health, livestock health, and a productive whole farm system.

Natural treatments work best if a truly caring and seriously dedicated cow-conscious person is in charge of the herd. Therefore, it depends not as much on what type of farming system is in place, but more on the person who is the primary care-giver for the cows.
~Karreman, 2006



Published January 16, 2009

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.