Let’s Talk About Antibiotics And Organic Animal Care

The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic, and for good reason. These are profoundly useful medicinal substances, both for human and animal health – no one can deny that. But overuse of these drugs, again in both the human and animal context, may lead to serious negative consequences. Informed, respectful conversations about the use of antibiotics in agriculture can help both farmers and consumers understand and address these concerns.

One of the distinguishing features of organic livestock production standards is a prohibition on the use of antibiotics in animals used to produce organic food. I have spent over 10 years working with new and established organic dairy producers in Canada, and I have been part of a lot of discussions, both within the organic sector and across the wider agricultural community, about organic animal health and welfare as it pertains to the use of antibiotics. Most of these conversations boil down to a few key ideas:

  1. ALL farmers, no matter their method of production, care deeply for the health and well-being of their animals. No farmer, big or small, organic or conventional, wants to see an animal under their care suffer needlessly, and they will use all the tools available to help. Organic standards in both the U.S. and Canada actually state this explicitly: “The producer of an organic livestock operation must not…withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.” Animals that are treated with antibiotics on an organic farm must be clearly identified and sold separately into the non-organic market. (This is true for meat animals in both the U.S. and Canada; in the U.S., antibiotic-treated dairy cows must be sold off the farm, but since 2008 in Canada, they are allowed to start producing organic milk again after a 30-day withholding period.)
  2. Antibiotics are not a cure-all. This is an important point on at least two levels: firstly, much of the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is linked to people who demand a prescription to treat illnesses (like the common cold) that are more likely caused by viruses, which antibiotics cannot treat. Secondly, farmers who treat an animal with antibiotics and observe improvement or recovery may mistakenly assume that the antibiotic treatment is the only thing that worked, and that not treating that animal would have resulted in a worsening of the condition. In fact, it’s quite possible that the animal would have recovered either way. This false assumption can lead to an overestimation of the effectiveness of antibiotics and of the negative effect of managing without them.
  3. Effective alternatives to antibiotics exist. Farmers who choose to use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary soon discover that they have a number of other tools available to them. Not all of them are as easy, well-known, and convenient to use as antibiotics, but they can be equally effective, especially if used as part of an integrated approach. Some of these products are natural anti-microbials, like garlic tinctures, essential oils, or other botanicals. Others are aimed at strengthening and enhancing the immune response of the animal: these can include vitamins, minerals, colostral whey products, probiotics, plant extracts, and other nutritional supplements. Thanks to the rapid growth in the organic livestock sector (and dairy in particular) there are now practitioners and companies devoted to meeting the health care needs of organic livestock.
  4. Good management matters most. Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that when it comes to caring for livestock, the differences in methods of production are relatively minor compared to the commonalities. The keys to animal health and welfare, regardless of the type of farm, are nutritious food, good water, fresh air, clean housing, and proper exercise (which, come to think of it, is also a good prescription for human health!). In fact, research conducted on organic and conventional dairy herds in Washington, Oregon, and New York State demonstrated very few significant differences in milk quality and herd health indicators – meaning that organic farmers are able to effectively manage their herds without antibiotics. For those interested, this same research demonstrated the variety of tools available to organic farmers. Rather than get caught up in debates over the use of one medicine, we should focus on the fact that well-managed farms have fewer sick animals, regardless of scale or methods of production.

At the end of the day, farmers who take a conscious, careful, informed approach to livestock health and welfare on their farms can provide top-quality care to their animals, regardless of which set of tools they choose to use. Good stewardship of antibiotics is very important to all farmers, for the health and welfare of both their animals and their families. Sharing the knowledge and experience of what works on our farms will benefit the agricultural community and society as a whole.

This post is portion of a three-part series on talking about antibiotics. We began the series discussing ways farmers and ranchers need to talk about antibiotics while being respectful to all aspects of agriculture. We followed that post with a veterinarian’s viewpoint from Dr. Jen Trout. We are dedicated to providing views from all segments of agriculture and close the series with a look from the organic sector.

Rob Wallbridge grew up on dairy and cash crop farms in Eastern Ontario, Canada. He currently operates Songberry Organic Farm in Bristol, Quebec with his wife and two young children, producing vegetables for market and raising livestock for personal consumption. Rob is a trained organic certification inspector, a graduate of the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, and a past board member of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. He volunteers on the Livestock Working Group of the Canadian General Standards Board Organic Technical Committee and consults on organic production and certification, including over 10 years with the organic dairy farmers of the Organic Meadow Co-operative.