cows in field

Udder Health and Milk Quality on Organic Dairy Farms

Vets gather, learn and share information

By Lisa McCrory and Sarah Flack

Added December 2, 2009. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association combined energies this past October to provide a workshop for veterinarians covering the National Organic Program’s certification standards for organic livestock production systems with a focus on udder health and milk quality. A total of 50 veterinarians, exhibitors and speakers attended the one-day workshop traveling from Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Speakers included Dr. Linda Tikofsky, Senior Extension Veterinarian with Quality Milk Production Services at Cornell University; Dr. John Barlow, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at UVM; Nicole Dehne, Administrator for NOFA Vermont’s certification program; Dr. Rick Bartholomew, Cold Hollow Vet Clinic; Dr. Mark Catlin, Maple Leaf Animal Clinic; and Dr. Will Barry, Dr. Will Barry Vet service.

The morning started with a presentation by Dr. Linda Tikofsky, who provided a great overview of the organic dairy industry including its history and where it is today. Her presentation included a description of the National Organic Program, its advisory board of specialists (the National Organic Standards Board) and the role of the certifier the producer and the veterinarian. She then covered the basic rules that the NOP has for organic livestock production including feed, living conditions and health care practices.

Once the foundation for the day was set, her talk dove into a number of studies that have been done looking at milk quality comparisons between organic and non-organic dairy farms with a clear indication that when processors pay premiums for higher milk quality, producers will and can deliver. Most organic processors will not accept milk over 400,000 Somatic Cell Count and will pay up to $3/cwt on top of their base for quality milk. Organic dairy farms, Linda has found, focus much of their management on preventive measures for healthy herds and economic success. Some of these preventive measures include regular reproductive herd checks, feeding a high forage diet, having a closed herd, proper building ventilation, feeding plenty of whole milk to calves and testing for milk quality and disease as needed.

A veterinarian working on an organic farm has lots of items that they can include in their veterinary medicine chest. Items that Dr. Tikofsky recommended include: thermometer, poly-serum (or other passive antibiodies), herbal tinctures, homeopathic remedies, Vitamins (A, D, E, B complex, B-12, C, E &Selenium), colostral-whey products, laxative boluses, calf and adult cow electolytes, probiotics, calendula tincture for uterine infusion, epinephrine, and ketone/pH strips. Treatment options for common issues on the farm were offered as well as management schemes for farms dealing with milk quality issues. All this information was then referred to as Dr. Tikofsky shared some case studies, their outcomes and resources where veterinarians and farmers could go for more information.

Participants had many questions about how to work with a certifier and why accredited certifiers sometimes don’t agree on what a producer can and cannot do on the farm. Nicole Dehne, Administrator for NOFA Vermont’s certification program was the next presenter and she did an excellent job talking about the role of certification agencies such as Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF). She explained that a certifier’s job is to verify that the farm is following the USDA NOP standards, which includes having the producer provide an Organic System Plan each year followed by an on-site inspection to verify what is on paper. Included as handouts was the NOP’s livestock health standards – including the accepted and prohibited generic materials list and VOF’s resource handout (updated regularly) listing accepted health products, practices and ingredients.

After lunch there was a lively and informative discussion with the help of an excellent panel of veterinarians. Dr.’s Rick Bartholomew, Mark Catlin and Will Barry each work in practices that work with both organic and conventional dairy herds. The veterinarians shared their experiences working with organic clients including some products and treatments that they have had success with. The overall consensus between the panelists and the audience was that the role for preventative medicine and management systems is the key to the majority of the problems. Common drugs and practices that the vets like to use include: high doses of vitamin C, fluids for sick animals, cleanliness with obstetrical work, the use of immuno-stimulants, acupuncture, homeopathy, apple cider vinegar for close up cows to prevent milk fever, some name-brand products (such as Dr. Karreman’s Phytomast), good ventilation and vaccinations. It was agreed by the veterinarians in the room that more research on the milk withholding periods after treatment, product safety and efficacy of the many treatments is needed. Another thing they thought would be useful is an on-line discussion list to continue sharing and learning as a community of professionals.

The final speaker of the day was Dr. John Barlow who shared some preliminary findings for mastitis control on organic dairy farms in Vermont. John has been monitoring SCC in 9 organic herds in VT. The median SCC is 220,000 with the range going from 81,000 to 419,000. Treatment practices for mastitis in these herds include (from most common to least) Aspirin followed by, vitamins and topicals, then garlic, homeopathy, whey based products and multivitamins/nutrient supplements. Ten percent of the farmers were very satisfied with the treatments, Thirty percent were satisfied, fifty percent were somewhat satisfied and 10 percent were not satisfied. Lots of discussion continued during this talk including management strategies when dealing with various types of mastitis. One vet in the audience wondered, if there is not a higher incidence of SCC elevation in organic dairy herds, why are dry cow treatments with antibiotics still routinely used on conventional herds?

The workshop day seemed to be a great success with veterinarians interested in attending other workshops that could cover other topics including: the relationship between nutrition and immune system competence, pneumonia, lameness, calf health, internal parasites and reproduction.

Thank you to all our sponsors who helped make this workshop possible: NESARE PDP grant, Udder Comfort, Horizon Organic, Crystal Creek Natural, IMPRO Products, Inc., Brookfield Ag Services, New AgriTech Enterprises, Penn Dutch Cow Care and the Bayou Sara Animal Clinic.

This workshop was the final piece of a NESARE PDP Grant which offered two conferences in 2007 and 2008 (Understanding Organics and Grazing), designed to educate extension personnel, veterinarians, nutritionists, and other professionals working with organic or transitioning livestock producers. Resources and presentation handouts from these two conferences are also available on the NOFA Vermont website address.