Organic Dairy Herd Health: General Concepts

eOrganic author:

Linda Tikofsky


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).

Introduction: Concepts of Organic Dairy Health

Organic dairy herd health is based on a holistic philosophy where soil, the environment, nutrition, and animal health are integrated. In conventional farming, a ‘reductionist’ approach to health is taken. When disease occurs in an organ or system, that diseased area is the target for examination and treatment and often, the rest of the body is irrelevant or ignored. Organic farmers and veterinarians use a different approach and look at the animal as an integrated unit that is a part of the whole ecosystem in which it lives. When disease becomes a problem on organic farms, the farmer cannot just look at the symptoms of the sick animal, but must consider the symptoms of the farm as well. What is lacking in soil health, nutrition, housing, and management that is predisposing the cows to disease?

The prevention of disease through best management practices is essential. Organic farmers do not merely substitute alternative medicine or treatment for one they may have used conventionally. Preventive practices, such as excellent nutrition, vaccination as necessary, stress reduction, and attention to sanitation greatly enhance the health of the herd and reduce disease. When disease does occur, early diagnosis and intervention is essential. To be most effective, alternative treatments need to be introduced earlier and more intensively than conventional treatments. The advantages to animal health under organic management include higher forage diets from predominantly good quality pasture, more exercise and fitness from actively grazing, reduced stress from lower production, crossbreeding for hybrid vigor, and the ability to exhibit natural behaviors. Farmers new to organic may have concerns about not being able to reach for a bottle of penicillin or prostaglandins each time a problem occurs, but in a well-tuned organic system, the instances when these products are needed are often reduced.

Risk Assessments and Best Management Practices

Risk is the possibility of an event happening (like disease) that will have a major affect on the health and financial profitability of the farm. A risk analysis helps identify potential problems and determine how to manage them most effectively. Your veterinarian can help with this process. Many states have cattle health assurance programs that assist the development of farm plans and sometimes provide financial support for testing. One of the most comprehensive sites is provided by the New York Cattle Health Assurance Program (

Risk analysis consists of three basic steps:

  1. Identify the problems, contributing factors, and extent of the problem.
  2. Design the best management practices to reduce and prevent disease on the farm.
  3. Communicate the issues and management strategies to all members of the farm team (workers, consultants, veterinarians, etc.) so that control is a community effort.

Using best management practices on your farm will help increase your herd’s health and will reduce disease, so it is worthwhile to take the time to include these in the herd health section of your Organic Systems Plan. Best Management Practices (BMP) are methods that reduce the risk of disease in the herd and may be as simple as keeping stalls clean and comfortable or may be more complex, such as designing and testing a segregation program to manage Johne’s on the farm.

Key steps in instituting BMPs are:

  • identifying risks for diseases,
  • designing management changes to reduce risk,
  • implementing those changes,
  • monitoring the effects of those changes on animal health, and
  • re-evaluating regularly and adjusting management as needed.

Animal Welfare on Organic Farms

Most consumers of organic dairy products purchase them with the idea that the cows producing the products are housed comfortably, are allowed to express natural behaviors, are outside on pasture, and that stress, illness, and suffering are reduced.

The National Organic Program (NOP) rule specifically states that “organic livestock producers must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behaviors of animals” and that “no producer shall withhold medical treatments from animals in an effort to preserve its organic status.” If properly administered alternative treatments are ineffective, farmers must use prohibited conventional substances as a last resort if it might save the animal. That animal must be identified and its food products (meat and milk) must be eliminated from the organic food chain forever.

“With herd health, the hardest thing to learn is the point at which you are not going to be able to pull an animal through with alternative remedies and knowing the point when you need to resort to antibiotics. The problem in some conditions is if you wait until they look like they are going to die, [the cows] probably still will die anyway. [The NOP] requires that you do not let animals suffer, although a treated animal must then be removed from the herd. The longer you are in organic management, the healthier your cows are.” —Liz Bawden, organic farmer in Northern New York

Animal Health Recordkeeping

The backbone of every organic farm is good recordkeeping so you can verify your organic management practices. Animal health records will be required by your organic certifier, and they are strongly recommended as a good business practice. Good records help you make well-informed decisions about preventative healthcare, develop appropriate culling strategies, and help fine tune your reproductive program.

Keeping detailed information on estrous (heat) cycles, feeding, and production is also recommended and makes good business sense. The health record form (appendix A) at the end of this chapter provides an example of an individual animal health record. Your certifier or milk processor may have other recordkeeping templates or suggestions. Finally, the most important piece of recordkeeping is actually using the information you collect to make sound financial and management decisions by being able to cull a repeat breeder or a cow with chronic mastitis.

Minimum data to track in your health recordkeeping include:

  • Animal identification
  • Birthdate or date of purchase
  • Sire and dam
  • Lactation number
  • Calving dates
  • Milk production and components
  • Dates and outcome of testing (Johne’s, BVD, etc.)
  • Treatments (product, date administered and dose, site administered and by whom, withholding time, and outcome)
  • Date of culling, sale, or death

Value of a Valid Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR)

Even though most conventional pharmaceuticals are not allowed in organic management, veterinarians can still play an important role on the organic farm in preventing, diagnosing, and managing disease. As the number of organic farms increase, we will likely see an increase in the number of veterinarians skilled in the use of alternative treatments, or at least familiar with managing diseases on organic farms.

A VCPR exists when the veterinarian has sufficient knowledge of the animal and the farm management through examination and farm visits. The veterinarian can work with you to develop a preliminary organic treatment plan and should be available for follow-up in case of adverse reactions or worsening of disease conditions.

Most alternative treatments are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are therefore considered “extra label drug use” (ELDU) under the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). Alternative treatments (e.g., aloe vera, homeopathic drugs, and botanical tinctures) must comply with the drug labeling and storage requirements of Section 15r of the PMO. All treatments must be labeled with the proper ELDU documentation. Without proper labeling and storage, you may face debits on farm inspections and risk losing your permit for shipping milk.

Alternative and allowed conventional treatments must be labeled with the following.

  • The name and address of the authorizing veterinarian (one who is personally familiar with the farm).
  • The name of the active ingredients (this is met by displaying the drug’s common, generic, or scientific name, not the trade or brand name).
  • Adequate directions for use.
  • Withholding times for meat and milk, even if zero.
  • Any necessary cautionary statements.

Performing a Physical Exam

Performing physical examinations on your animals will help you identify illnesses earlier, communicate with your veterinarian, and monitor response to treatments. It is worthwhile to develop a consistent routine for your physical examinations and to record your findings as you go. The information in Appendix B was developed by Cornell University’s PRO-DAIRY and is a useful guide to physical exams for all farms.

Summary of Key Organic Transition Points for Organic Livestock Health Care

  • Follow the NOP rules regarding animal management and treatments (§205.236–§205.239, §205.290, and §205.603–§205.604). Always check with your certifier before using a new treatment or substance! Many animal health treatments commonly used on conventional farms are NOT permitted in organic management (e.g., antibiotics, hormones, propylene glycol, calcium proprionate gel tubes, many udder salves, etc.).
  • Dairy health on organic farms is more than knowing the allowed and prohibited substances. Your focus needs to be on preventive practices, management, and sanitation.
  • Observe! Watch your animals carefully and often and understand their behavior. Most illnesses evolve over time so careful observation will allow you to detect symptoms early and act before you hit a crisis.
  • Know how to perform a basic physical exam and record your findings.
  • She is what she eats. Good nutrition is essential to good animal health and a properly functioning immune system.
  • Cleanliness! Disease is related to the number of bacteria, viruses, etc. presented to the animal. Keep stalls and yards free of manure, eliminate access to damp muddy areas, and be careful about contaminating youngstock areas with adult manure.
  • Pasture is your partner. The nutrition provided by "Dr. Green" will help prevent many health problems and is your ally in treatment. Natural ventilation, breezes, and UV radiation from the sun will act as natural antimicrobial agents.
  • Reduce stress! Prevent overcrowding, provide superior nutrition, and practice good animal husbandry. During the winter housing season, ensure superior ventilation to prevent respiratory diseases. Always provide a fresh supply of good quality water. Would you drink from your cattle's water troughs?
  • Practice good recordkeeping. This will keep you in good stead with your certifier and allow you to identify problem trends early.
  • Vaccinations are allowed and should be used where indicated.
  • Foster a good relationship with a local veterinarian. Many established organic farmers find that the number of veterinary treatment visits decrease in a successful organic system. However, your veterinarian can be a good consultant and will help you establish your best management practices to prevent disease and will be available to you for critical situations.
  • Familiarize yourself with complementary and alternative therapies through reading, attending meetings, and speaking with established organic farmers. Know what works well in your hands and on your farm (keep records of treatments and responses).
  • When alternative treatments fail and animal welfare is in jeopardy, you are obliged by the NOP rule to provide necessary medical treatment, even if it uses prohibited substances and you must remove the animal from your herd.

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations


Published February 7, 2013

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.