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This week’s Book of the Week feature is Treating Dairy Cows Naturally by Dr. Hubert Karreman.

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Chapter 7: Real Life Situations, Natural Treatments & Farmers

Working clinically as a veterinary practitioner with natural treatments in dairy cows can be highly rewarding but also quite challenging. The constancy of milking cows twice daily along with the economic goals of dairy farming stimulates the farmer to continually assess whether or not a given treatment is working. In simplest terms, if a cow is resuming milk production or beginning to eat again after a certain treatment is given, then the farmer is usually satisfied that the treatment has been effective.

An effective treatment in the mind of a dairy farmer does not necessarily equate with what the scientific method in medical research would call “effective” with a strong bias to studies that are statistically significant. In addition, most farmers are not concerned about the scientific mechanism of action that a given treatment exerts—they just want the treatment to work in their barn. If it doesn’t work, they will not buy it any further and go on to another product. On the other hand, farmers will keep buying the products that work on their farms. This is common sense and the economics of reality. In addition, the farmer is definitely happier if milk does not have to be withheld from the milk tank on account of residues from a specific treatment type. After all, a main goal of dairy farming is the production of high quality milk without relying on treatments. Taking this idea to an extreme is the realm of organic dairy farming. As already mentioned (and worthy of continual repeating), if a dairy cow is treated with a prohibited material while on a USDA Certified Organic farm, the cow must be immediately removed from certified organic production forever. There is a negative incentive on organic dairy farms to use conventionally accepted methods of treating common problems such as mastitis, pneumonia, uterine infections and ovarian dysfunction. Prevention becomes critical.

A main goal of dairy farming is the production of high quality milk without relying on treatments.

In ecological and organic farming, there is strong emphasis that if everything is biologically healthy in the soil, then the crops harvested will supply the correct nutrition to the cows to maintain a superior immune system. The thinking continues that the cows will remain vigorous and will of course repel attack from infectious organisms (viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, etc.). This philosophy is honorable yet a bit too optimistic and too easily plants false expectations into the minds of gullible people. Granted, if the soil is in bad shape, the crops that go to feed the cows will not be as healthful. However, it does not necessarily follow that if the soil is healthy then the cows will automatically be healthy. There are just too many steps between the life in the soil and what ends up going into the cow’s mouth as fed by the farmer. The closest philosophy that is defensible is that dairy cows which actively graze are in general healthier than dairy cattle permanently confined in pens indoors and fed silages and concentrates. The study I conducted in Holland (previously cited) confirms this.

Even in grazing herds, which truly seem to need fewer visits by the vet for sick cows, there is always the real possibility that a cow will come down with pasture bloat, lameness, mastitis or some peri-parturient problem. There may be less incidence of illness on organic or grazing farms, but there will still be illness — and a variety of it as well. The potential risk of illness occurring in an animal is a fact of life for those holding livestock.

There may be less incidence of illness on organic or grazing farms, but there will still be illness

Fortunately for dairy farmers, problems can be recognized early due to the never- ending cycle of milking cows twice daily. Timely intervention is important no matter what mode of treatment is used, but it is perhaps more critical for those relying on natural treatments. This is because many natural treatments do seem to rely on stimulating the animal’s vitality in order to overcome problems on their own. Perhaps it is good to point out the basic assumption often implicitly accepted by those preferring natural treatments: there exists an inherent vital force in every living creation. The vital force is not quantifiable but is somewhat observable in the form of each animal’s unique interaction and responses to its immediate environment. Under high-density factory farming confinement conditions, such unique character traits are essentially suppressed, and the idea of recognizing an animal’s individual “vitality” is nearly obliterated. The vitality of an animal is somewhat akin to its biological constitution, but it also includes unique behaviors in character that sets it apart from all other animals around it.

Some of the following questions may help to recognize different kinds of vitality in animals — but it is all a variation on the theme of all animals having a unique vital force. And it should be noted that nearly all complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) modalities take into consideration factors beyond what is normally noted during a standard physical exam. For instance, how does the cow interact with her herd mates, other kinds of animals (dogs, horses, chickens, etc.) or strangers in the barn? Is she peaceful, or is she nervous? Is she curious but shy? Is she mean? How does she react to being examined? How does she react to changes in feed — does she immediately show digestive disturbance; does she prefer certain kinds of feed; does she always have a great appetite regardless of feed quality? How does she do in the heat of summer or with various weather changes? All these types of reactions of a cow to her immediate environment can give an observant caretaker insight into his/her animals’ natural tendencies and inherent vitality.

Some animals are hardier than others, given equal surroundings. Hardiness may be due to a cow’s breed, genetics, conformation, nutrition or pre-disposed constitution and may or may not fit a particular farm’s surroundings. And, even though they are large mammals, some cows are actually quite delicate when it comes to their constitution or vitality. They may be excellent milk animals, but they are easily thrown off balance with slight changes in the daily routine. In the end, each animal has quite a unique character if a person is willing to take the time to learn about the individual animals which make up the entire herd.

Some treatment philosophies emphasize the character of the entire herd rather than the individual animals. Granted, most herbivores are herd-oriented animals, as opposed to more independent animals such as dogs and cats. And indeed there are many times when adjustments or “treatments” are administered to the herd as a whole — feed ration changes, housing changes, vaccination, ventilation, and stall changes, etc. Keep in mind that these treatments are not looking at individual characteristics or even the herd’s basic character; they are simply being applied to the whole herd regardless of any kind of unique aspects of individual animals that may actually occur within that particular herd.

By combining knowledge of the individual animals and the herd as a whole, experience often guides the best farmers into taking appropriate measures to enhance the well-being of his/her farm animals. This perhaps is how holistic treatments for dairy cows differ from holistic treatments for pets. However, holistic treatments for livestock can be similar to that for pets if taking individualized symptoms into account, bearing in mind, however, that the environment impacts livestock much more since they are directly bound to it. Where holistic treatment differs considerably from pets is the amount of time given for an animal to respond. The economics involved with dairy farming often dictates “quick fixes” for animals in terms of individual treatment.

he way the individual farmer handles a situation often determines if an animal regains health quickly enough to remain a productive member of the herd.

Yet “treatment” may also include perhaps slower, more basic changes in the farm’s environment in terms of water and air quality as well as manure management in terms of land health and animal housing. These are factors which cannot always show direct cause and effect but nonetheless affect the farm’s overall health. Even when the soil is healthy and everything is humming along, there’ll still be times when individual animals become sick, be it due to a weakening of their vital force, a hot challenge posed by factors in the environment, or both. Unforeseen accidents are always a possibility as well. The way the individual farmer handles a situation often determines if an animal regains health quickly enough to remain a productive member of the herd.

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About the Author:

Dr. Hubert Karreman is the Institute Veterinarian at the Rodale institute and Founder and Principal of Bovinity Health, providing natural products for the non-antibiotic treatment of infectious disease. Previously, he was in full-time dairy practice for 15 years with certified organic herds in the Lancaster, PA area.

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