Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach (2nd Edition)

Edited by Dr. Temple Grandin
Colorado State University, USA

ISBN: 978-1-78064-467-7
c. 368 pages
131 figures/illustrations

Subject Classifcation: KNAC, PSVP, TVH, TW
Territorial Market Rights: World
Published by CABI

Links for ordering:


Chapter 13: Animal well-being on organic farms.

by Hubert J. Karramon - Rodale Institute and Wendy Fulwider - Global Animal Partnership

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 13...


Organic livestock rearing uses common sense that is also applicable to conventional farms. By providing the building blocks to health, via clean, dry bedding, housing, genetic selection for disease resistance, choice of whether to be inside or outside, feeds appropriate to species digestive processes, and managed pastureland, both the health and well—being of fann animals can be achieved. In the relatively rare instances of illness, there are many tools from which to choose. This can both stimulate and free a clinician from the false sense that antibiotics must always be used to treat infections. If more clinicians used altematives to antibiotics, there would be less resistance, which is also good for society. Many principles , used in organic agriculture can also help improve biodiversity. A basic principle of organic animal production is to eliminate or greatly reduce dependence on antibiotics and other synthetic inputs. Animals are allowed to perform their natural behaviors and they have direct outdoor contact with the land. Successful organic farming requires managers to look at the big picture of how their farming system interacts with the environment. It is important to use breeds of livestock and poultry that are hardy and can resist disease. Some genetic lines of high-producing animals are not recommended for organic systems with lower inputs. Organic requirements such as grazing on pasture can improve animal welfare by reducing lameness, but excellent manage- ment is required to control disease and parasites. After the legal withdrawal time, the animal can be sold to a conventional farm to live out its life or be sent to slaughter. The ban on antibiotics has led to the development of natural methods of treating common farm animal diseases in the NOP certified organic sector. Let us explore the reason for the complete prohibition of antibiotics in US organics, and the unintended positive consequences of this prohibition.

Quick Access Information 13.2. Organic standards for housing, outdoor access, and grazing
USA Canada European Union
Access to outdoors Required for all livestock and poultry Required for all livestock and poultry Required, preferably pasture
Grazing Ruminants 30% or more of dry matter intake from grazing throughout the growing period Herbivores 30% or more of dry matter intake from grazing throughout the growing period (see standard for pasture space requirements) All livestock and poultiy permanent access to pasture or roughage
Animal density Being developed There are specific maximum indoor and outdoor densities for each species (see standards) Stocking densities shall ensure that the physiological and ethological needs of the animals are met

Antibiotics and Organics

Why are people willing to pay a premium for orga- nic products? The main reason is consumer percep- tion of a wholesome product. This is based on certain rules regarding organic farming, such as any field spray must be environmentally friendly (USC6518, Section 2119(m)). Consumers also know that the biology of the land is respected. The animals are required to be on the land and able to express natural behaviors. Additionally, organic consumers know that the animals have not received growth hormones or antibiotics in their feed. In the USA, consumers are very touchy about the issue of antibiotic or hormone use. Consumer perceptions and expectations are a major factor of the high demand for organic products. US consumers expres- sed their opinions about organic farming via the public comment process to the National Organic Standard Board. These consumer comments helped determine which materials could and could not be used in US organic farming. In the USA, consumers want antibiotics removed. This is a controversial issue as products move across the globe. As a US veterinary practitioner (HK) working in the certified organic livestock sector since 1995, the ability to use antibiotics to treat illness in organic livestock has never been easy. The use of antibiotics in a USDA certified organic herd, per the National Organic Program (NOP) Rule, is prohibited and it requires permanent removal of the animal from organic production (USDA, NOP 7USFR205.238(c)(7)).

Reasons for US antibiotic prohibition

There are many reasons for the complete antibiotic prohibition in the USA. One major reason is the perception (correct or not) by consumers that antibiotics have been overused or abused in the conventional sector. The impression at the time of the debate (mid-1990s) about US organic standards was that prohibiting antibiotics for organic livestock would create a stronger demarcation between conventional and organic. And indeed it has, just as the pasture requirement has. During the national discussion, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forced the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to make a decision as to whether antibiotics would be allowed with a simple requirement to double the withholding time or to ban them completely. These were the two choices the federal government was proposing to the young organic community. There is reason to believe that the FDA was hoping the NOSB would take the "no antibiotics at all" stance as the FDA thought it would simply be a matter of time until the organic livestock sector would collapse. The NOSB eventually did elect for a complete ban on antibiotics in organic livestock. This was due mainly to the comments submitted from both the public and the organic farmers, who wanted complete prohibition.

Europe and Canada allow antibiotics

The EU, on the other hand, has always allowed the use of antibiotics, with a penalty time of twice the withholding time and a maximum of 2-3 antibiotic treatments per lactation (dairy cows). In animals living less than a year, two or three treatments are allowed. Canada has chosen a middle path between the NOP and EU standards in regards to antibiotic use. While the majority of Canadian regulations quote directly from both the NOP and the EU, when it comes to antibiotics they have taken a novel approach: twice the withholding time or 30 days withholding time, whichever is greater. Since most antibiotics, especially for lactating dairy cattle, withholding times of only 36-72 h for conventional use, the 30-day withholding time would make dairy farmer in Canada think long and hard before using an antibiotic on a lactating cow. The Canadian standards would make it possible to use antibiotics to save a sick baby calf, and the grown animal could still be used for Canadian organic production. Baby dairy calves are a major welfare problem area on poorly managed organic dairies. At one US organic dairy with sloppy practices, 30% of newborn Holstein dairy calves died (T Grandin, 2010, Colorado State University, personal communication).

Differences between US and European organic systems

In Europe, there is greater emphasis on natural living, and in the USA, there is more emphasis on no antibiotics and avoiding contaminated food. People in Europe are also more concerned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but within the past few years, American consumers have become more aware of this issue. Quick Access Information 13.1 outlines the differences between US, Canadian, and European organic standards. The US standard is much stricter, requiring all pasture, hay, and feed to be grown on organically certified land without artificial pesticides or fertilizers. Since this is very expensive, many “natural" programs have been developed in the USA and other countries. They allow conventional feeds to be used, but the use of antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones, and beta-agonists is forbidden. For further information, refer to legislation in your country and the standards that are required by the market to which the animals are being sold.

Alternative Medications for Organic Animals

Strict penalties for using antibiotics and other prohibited materials give farmers incentives to try natural alternatives to antibiotics. Strict rules stimulate caregivers and veterinarians to think “outside the box". It is unfortunate but true that veterinarians are reluctant to steer away from antibiotic and hormone therapies learned in veterinary school. Veterinarians already carry many supplies that are permitted in organic animals to relieve acute pain and suffering immediately. They are dextrose, calcium, hypertonic saline, lactated ringers solution, sodium iodide, injectable vitamins and minerals, flunixin, xylazine, butorphanol, and lidocaine. Naturally occurring biologics such as specific antibodies and vaccines (if not genetically engineered) are allowed. Parasiticides are allowed in all organic programs for breeding animals. There are many good textbooks on natural treatments that are allowed in US organic and other programs that forbid antibiotics. Before using any treatments, consult with your local veterinarian, the legislation in your country, and the standards of the marketing program your herd or flock is participating in. The following books can be obtained from major academic publishers — Karreman (2004), Vaarst et al. (2006), Blair (2007), Wynn and Fougere (2007), and Siragusa and Ricke (2012). One of the authors of this chapter has written an easy-to-use barn guide to natural treatments for dairy cows (Karreman, 2011).

An Organic Program Should Never Compromise Welfare

Withholding an antibiotic from an individual animal when it is truly needed would impact animal welfare negatively. But antibiotics — in and of themselves — do not ensure proper animal welfare. Antibiotics save lives. Using them in a timely fashion prior to any permanent damage is a critical component in the responsible use of these lifesaving medicines. When an organic farmer is having trouble deciding whether or not to use an antibiotic when it is truly needed, a veterinarian may need to remind him or her that a few animals will leave the herd every year and that the animal truly needing an antibiotic will be one of them. The organic consumer is paying a premium for organic products, and the farmer should do the right thing and not let any animal suffer. Perhaps the farmer should be asked gently what the organic consumer would want done for the animal in the situation if he or she were standing there and had been given all the information and treatment options. A final nudge to use an antibiotic when it is truly necessary would be to state that it is better to have a live conventional animal than a dead organic animal. One of the authors of this chapter (HK) has used each of these rationales separately and in tandem on a few occasions when a farmer simply could not make up his or her mind about using an antibiotic. The farmer was having a difficult time with the reality of having to remove the animal permanently from US organic production. In a certain sense, when needing to reach for an antibiotic, animal welfare on the farm has already been compromised in some manner and most organic farmers feel slightly defeated when an animal has to be given an antibiotic. Is the neglect/suffering of one organic animal not given antibiotics in time worse than the potential disease transmission of using reproductive hormone injections in synchronization protocols on conventional farms without using new needles on different cows? Does the potential suffering of one animal not given an antibiotic in time offset the continual day in and day out feeding of high grain rations for high production or rate of gain, which creates subacute rumen acidosis? And does the suffering of one animal not given antibiotics in time overshadow cows that spend their entire lives on concrete and never experience walking on actual earth and grazing pasture? Is it always the case that cows that can be given antibiotics on conventional farms are always treated promptly with antibiotics when they really need them? Additionally, livestock do die on farms — just because antibiotics can be used on conventional farms in the USA does not guarantee that animals will never die.

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