Organic Dairy Herd Health: Alternative and Complementary Treatment and Medicines

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).


Complementary and alternative veterinary medicines (CAVM) are treatments not currently considered part of conventional medicine. The term "complementary" defines treatments that are used in conjunction with conventional therapies and the term "alternative" indicates those that are used instead of conventional medicine. CAVM includes most common botanical (herbal) medicines, homeopathy, acupuncture, and chiropractic medicine.

The goal of this article is to give the reader a general overview of therapies commonly used on organic dairies, but it will not go into specific details. There are several excellent texts by Drs. Karreman, Sheaffer, and Dettloff, among others that should be in every transitioning dairy farmer’s library (see the list of citations at the end of this article). Additionally, many organic groups organize workshops and meetings with experts in these fields. These meetings should be a priority  if you wish to become skilled in alternative medicine.


Botanical medicine uses plants and plant substances as medicines. These are some of our most ancient treatments and are still in use as primary medical therapies in many parts of the world. Many modern, conventional medicines have their origins in botanical therapies.

Botanicals can be administered in a number of ways. The most common forms are tinctures (alcohol extractions), tisanes (hot water extractions), essential oils topically applied, or the consumption of whole or parts of dried herbs. Dried herbs may also be administered in gelatin boluses or capsules. Table 1. lists commonly used botanicals.

Potential hazards of botanical medicine include the following.

  • Not inherently safe and dose is important. May be a narrow line between beneficial effects and toxicity.
  • Difficult to standardize dose. Growing conditions vary by location and year, and affect the concentrations of medically active substances in plants.
  • Production methods may include impurities.
  • Milk and meat withdrawals have not been established.
  • Few botanicals have been critically evaluated in ruminants. Since we produce food (milk and meat) we need to be cautious of potential residues from plant medicines just as conventional farmers are careful about residues from conventional medicines.
Table 1. Commonly used botanicals on organic farms.
Common and Scientific Name Parts Used Uses Toxicities
Aloe vera
Aloe spp.
Leaves Topically: rashes, cuts, burns
Internally: Digestive aid, antispasmodic,
immune stimulant
Digestive upset,
colic, diarrhea
Black cohosh
Rhizomes Reproduction Liver disease
Black walnut
Juglans nigra
Hulls Intestinal parasites, diarrhea Laminitis, seizures,
respiratory failure
Eupatorium perfoliatum
Leaves, flowers Immune stimulant, bone pain, fever Diarrhea, skin irritation
Arctium spp.
Root, leaves Blood cleanser, diuretic, skin disease None known
Calendula officinalis
Flowers Incorporated into salves or ointments for abrasions, eyewash, mouth ulcers, skin irritations None known
Capiscum spp.
Ground fruit Stimulate local circulation, pain, antimicrobial Irritation
Leaves, twigs Topically for warts, chronic skin problems, upper respiratory problems Abortion, digestive upset
Matricaria recutita
Flower heads Digestive disorders, mild sedative None known
Symphytum officinale
Leaves, root Bone healing, commonly used as a poultice for wounds, acute mastitis, teat injuries Internal uses can be extremely toxic: liver toxicity and failure; liver cancer
Turnera diffusa
Leaves Used to stimulate estrus None known
Taraxacum officinale
Leaves, root Cleansing tonic for liver, udder edema None known
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Seeds, leaves Stimulate milk production Muscle disease, anemia
Digitalis lanata
Leaves, roots, seeds Heart disease Extremely toxic: 6–7 oz. of fresh leaves can kill a cow; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, slowed/abnormal heartbeat, hallucinations
Allium sativum
Bulb, cloves Antibiotic, antifungal, dewormer Bleeding, anemia
Zingiber oficinale
Root Digestive upset Bleeding
Panax ginseng
Root Immune stimulant, increase fertility, mastitis None known
Hydrastis canadensis
Whole plant Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, laxative, digestive disorders, increase bile flow Diarrhea, seizures at high doses
Althaea officinalis
Root Digestive and urinary disorders, diarrhea, chronic coughs None known
Milk thistle
Silybum eburneum
Seed, leaves Liver damage, giardia, ketosis prevention None known
Pau d’arco
Tabebuia impetiginosa
Inner bark Antibacterial, antifungal, immune stimulant Skin irritation
Phytolacca spp.
Berries, root Most commonly used homeopathically: tumors, mastitis Extremely toxic: colic, diarrhea, respiratory failure, weakness, death
Purple coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Root Immune stimulant, antiviral None known
Leaves Indigestion, decrease lactation Large doses: dizziness, increased heart rate
St. John’s wort
Hypericum perforatum
Flowers, plants, stems Antidepressant, nerve pain Restlessness, confusion, depression, circling; skin irritation; abortions, reduced milk production
Tea tree oil
Melaleuca alternifolia
Oil from leaves Antimicrobial, skin infections: bacteria, fungal, yeast NOT FOR ORAL USE
Valeriana officianalis
Root Sedative Very safe
White willow
Salix spp.
Bark Anti-inflammatory:
fever, injuries, pain
Digestive upsets
Wolfbane or leopard’s
Arnica montana
Leaves Bruising, inflammation NOT FOR ORAL USE,
most commonly used
Artemisia absinthium;
Artemisia annua
Leaves Dewormer, insect repellent Digestive disorders,
paralysis, death


Homeopathy, developed in Western Europe, bases treatments on the Law of Similars or "like treating like." The concept is similar to conventional medicine vaccinations where small amounts of dead or live bacteria or viruses are introduced into the body to stimulate the body’s immune response, helping the body do the real disease fighting.

In homeopathy, substances that would create adverse symptoms in a human or animal are extremely diluted and shaken, or succussed (a homeopathy term), at each step of dilution. These dilute remedies (10X = diluted 1:10 ten times; 30C = diluted 1:100 thirty times; 10M = diluted 1:1,000 ten times) are used to treat symptoms that the original product would have created. The more dilute a remedy, the greater its potency. These dilutions are administered as a liquid or by lactose spheres onto which homeopathic companies have sprayed the remedy. The liquid or tablet homeopathic remedies are placed in contact with mucous membranes (mouth, nasal passages, or vulva). Typically, remedies are administered more frequently (up to six times a day) early in the disease and then tapered down as symptoms regress.

A basic philosophy of homeopathy is that each animal is unique and so there are no "one size fits all" recommendations. Successful homeopathic treatment relies on fully assessing or repertorizing (a homeopathy term) the animal, taking into account not only the symptoms present (fever, diarrhea, cystic ovary, etc.), but the location (e.g., cystic right ovary) and the animal’s behavior. Once all of these conditions are noted, you can look up the appropriate therapies in the Homeopathic Materia Medica (Macleod, 2004).

Immune Stimulants

Organic dairy production and the integration of soil and crop health with animal health enhances the animal’s immune system. As a standard, try to increase the cows’ immunity through holistic methods: reducing stress, proper nutrition, considering comfort and welfare, vaccinating, and good husbandry. On occasion, organic farmers use other products to stimulate the immune system, including some of the following.

Colostral-whey Injections

These products are produced from the colostrum of hypervaccinated cows. These pasteurized products contain antibodies (immunoglobulins) and other immunologically active proteins (lymphokines, cytokines, lactoferrin, and enzymes) that attempt to generally stimulate the immune system. These products are available from a variety of companies and some are more specific than others (e.g., Strep specific, Staph aureus specific). You must ensure that the colostrum-whey product you use comes from cows managed organically.


This product is a biological stimulant produced from the cell wall of dead mycobacterium. The USDA licenses it to treat calf scours due to E. coli. Some veterinarians use this product off-label as a general immunostimulant.


Nosodes are the "vaccinations" of homeopathy created from a diseased organ or discharge (e.g., mastitis culture) in the same dilution and succussion process described earlier. Commonly, they are administered before anticipated exposure to a disease or as part of a treatment regimen. Currently there is no scientific evidence in conventional veterinary literature proving that nosodes confer the same amount of immune protection as conventional vaccinations.

Hyperimmunized Serum

These products provide passive antibodies and are most often used to combat diseases (pneumonia and scours) caused by gram-negative bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella, and Pasteurella) or by clostridial diseases. Companies produce these products by hypervaccinating adult cattle for the target diseases, harvesting their blood, and removing red and white blood cells to create a serum. They are administered to treat a disease when symptoms are apparent.

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Treatment Regimens

Most alternative treatments presented to organic dairy producers have not been subjected to extensive testing under controlled circumstances and may only be accompanied by testimonials. What works on one farm may not work on every farm because of differences in climate, management, genetics, and nutrition. It is necessary that you critically evaluate whether a new product’s potential benefits on your farm outweigh the cost of the product. Table 2 provides questions to ask yourself and the company representatives about a new product. If most of your answers are "no," think twice before writing that check!

Table 2. Checklist for evaluation of new treatments.
__ Does this product fit a need or disease you currently have?
__ If you have a disease on your farm, have you evaluated management deficiencies so that you can make changes to prevent the disease?
__ Can the company provide you with the published results of independent research (not done or funded by the company) on the product?
__ Does the company have safety data on the product and information on milk and meat withholding?
__ Will the company share information with or take the time to consult with your veterinarian?
__ Does the company have sufficient contact information so that you can contact it for support in the event of a bad reaction to the product?
__ Have you contacted other farmers who are familiar with the product?

The National List

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits most synthetic substances from use in organic livestock production so always check with your certifier when evaluating a product for use with your animals. The basic rule of thumb is that the NOP prohibits all synthetics unless specifically allowed and allows all natural substances unless specifically prohibited. Some "natural" products, however, contain prohibited substances as carriers or additives. Send a product label to your certifier to be sure! It is necessary to review products with your certifier before you need them and definitely before you use them. All products you use on your farm must be listed in your organic systems plan.

NOP Rule §205.603 contains a list of all substances allowed for use in organic livestock production, provided in Table 3. for your convenience. Over time, there may be additions or deletions to the National List so check the most current version at the National Organic Program website ( Your certifier may also provide an allowed products list.

Table 3. National list of allowed synthetics for livestock health (as of 6/2012).
Substance Allowed Use
Ethanol As disinfectant or sanitizer; NOT as a feed additive.
Isopropanol As disinfectant only.
Aspirin Allowed to reduce inflammation.
Butorphanol Veterinary use only. 8-day milk withdrawal, 42-day meat withdrawal.
Vaccines All allowed.
Chlorhexidine As a teat dip when other germicidal agents or barrier have lost effectiveness. Allowed for surgical procedures performed by a veterinarian.
Chlorine materials: Calcium hypochlorite, Chlorine dioxide,
Sodium hypochlorite
Allowed to disinfect and sanitize facilities and equipment. Residual levels in water must meet limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Electrolytes Allowed as long as they do not contain antibiotics.
Flunixin Allowed with twice the withdrawal period.
Furosemide Allowed with twice the withdrawal period.
Glucose/Dextrose Allowed.
Glycerine Allowed as a teat dip ingredient, but must be produced from hydrolysis of fats and oils.
Hydrogen peroxide Allowed. Used as a disinfectant, sanitizer or medical treatment, and on the NOP crops list for plant disease control and as an algicide, disinfectant and sanitizer, including to clean irrigation lines; however, it may not be allowed under milkhouse sanitation requirements.
Iodine Allowed as disinfectant and topical treatment.
Magnesium hydroxide Veterinary use only.
Magnesium sulfate Allowed; used for treatment of grass tetany.
Oxytocin Allowed for postcalving emergencies; NOT allowed for milk letdown. Some processors will not allow it because it is a hormone.
Fenbendazole Only for use by or on the lawful written order of a licensed veterinarian. Prohibited in slaughter stock, allowed in emergency treatment for dairy and breeder stock when organic system plan-approved preventive management does not prevent infestation. Milk or milk products from a treated animal cannot be labeled as provided for in subpart D of this part for 90 days following treatment. In breeder stock, treatment cannot occur during the last third of gestation if the progeny will be sold as organic and must not be used during the lactation period for breeding stock.
Ivermectin Prohibited in slaughter stock, allowed in emergency treatment for dairy and breeder stock when organic system plan-approved preventive management does not prevent infestation. Milk or milk products from a treated animal cannot be labeled as provided for in subpart D of this part for 90 days following treatment. In breeder stock, treatment cannot occur during the last third of gestation if the progeny will be sold as organic and must not be used during the lactation period for breeding stock.
Moxidectin For control of internal parasites only. Prohibited in slaughter stock, allowed in emergency treatment for dairy and breeder stock when organic system plan-approved preventive management does not prevent infestation. Milk or milk products from a treated animal cannot be labeled as provided for in subpart D of this part for 90 days following treatment. In breeder stock, treatment cannot occur during the last third of gestation if the progeny will be sold as organic and must not be used during the lactation period for breeding stock.
Phosporic acid Allowed as an equipment cleaner as long as it does not contact livestock or land.
Poloxalene Allowed for emergency treatment of bloat.
Copper sulfate Allowed as topical treatment, hoof treatment.
Lidocaine/Procaine Allowed as local anesthetic. Milk withdrawal is 7 days, meat withdrawal is 90 days.
Hydrated lime Allowed as external pest control; NOT allowed as a bedding agent.
Mineral oil Allowed for topical use and as a lubricant; NOT FOR INTERNAL USE.
Tolazoline Used to reverse effects of xylazine; veterinary use only; 8-day meat withdrawal, 4-day milk discard.
Trace minerals Allowed as feed additive as long as they are FDA approved.
Vitamins Allowed as feed additive as long as they are FDA approved.
Xylazine Tranquilizer; veterinary use only; 8-day meat withdrawal, 4-day milk discard.

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.