Saturday, March 17, 2012

Never organic

I would never raise livestock organically. I can think of many, many reasons why, but mostly it's because I care about the health and welfare of animals. Another reason is because I'm an advocate for science-based decision-making.

USDA's National Organic Standards have no basis in science. They are based on people's perceptions of how animals should be raised . . . and we all know how wrong people's perceptions can be. The earth is flat. The Holocaust never happened.

The organic standards do not allow you to treat a sick animal with anything that is scientifically-proven to be effective. You can't use antibiotics, anthelmintics, anti-inflammatories, coccidiostats, steroids, hormones, feed additives, or many other conventional therapies. Try raising yourself without modern medicine!


Of course, proponents of the organic standards will be quick to point out that you are required to treat a sick animal (with the unapproved aforementioned drugs). But once you treat the animal, you can no longer sell its products as organic. This means that many organic producers will withhold treatment as long as possible, so as not to jeopardize the animal's organic status, which will lead to increased animal suffering and mortality. Never forget that organic is a business and that the majority of organic food is produced by large companies.

Here's my thought process: if it's so wrong to deny treatment to a sick animal then why don't the organic standards simply allow it. Billions of dollars have been spent to determine the appropriate withdrawal periods for drugs. A withdrawal period is the amount of time it takes for the animal to metabolize a drug and the necessary time required for the product concentration level in the tissue to be decreased to a safe acceptable level. Some drugs have no withdrawal. Instead of prohibiting treatment, why don't the organic standards simply require documentation and exaggerated withdrawal periods?

The organic standards advocate preventative health care. That's fine and no different than what we aim for in conventional animal production systems. Everybody knows it makes more sense to prevent disease than to treat it. Unfortunately, not all disease can be prevented without the benefit of drugs. Go ahead . . . give up your cholesterol drug!

I am reminded of the situation in Denmark where sub-therapeutic antibiotics were banned in livestock feed. According to some sources, the ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics has resulted in an increase in the use of therapeutic antibiotics (to treat disease outbreaks). It's always better to prevent disease than to treat it.

My farm
On my farm, I do not include antibiotics in my feed, but I use antibiotics to treat diseases that occur sporadically. I treat mastitis with systemic and intramammary antibiotics. If a sheep has a foot or hoof infection, I give it an injection of an antibiotic. I use an antibiotic ointment to treat the occasional eye infection.

If I have to assist in the delivery of lambs, I give the ewe an antibiotic injection to prevent a uterine infection. I give an oral antibiotic to treat scours in baby lambs. I give an anti-inflammatory drug to relieve pain and fever. I use various other treatments which would be prohibited under organic standards (e.g. propylene glycol -- to treat pregnancy toxemia).


During late pregnancy, my ewes have access to a free choice mineral mix that contains an ionophore that is approved as a coccidiostat for sheep. Ionophores are narrowly classified as antibiotics. They disrupt the life cycle of the coccidia. Coccidiosis can be a major problem in young lambs.

My lambs also have access to a free choice mineral mix containing the same ionophore. Coccidiostats are permitted under USDA's naturally-raised standards, but are prohibited in the organic standards. Ionophores have no human use and no withdrawal period. In ruminant livestock, they not only help to prevent coccidiosis, but they create a healthier rumen environment.

I rarely deworm my sheep, but when a lamb shows clinical signs of barber pole worm infection (anemia and/or bottle jaw), I deworm it with an anthelmintic. Despite what people think (or want to think), there are no natural alternatives to anthelmintics. A parasitized animal needs a drug dumped down its gullet, else risk death. Good management and nutrition can significantly reduce the number of animals that require deworming, but it is rare to completely eliminate the need for anthelmintic treatment, especially in sheep and goats.

The bottom line
In my opinion (as a livestock producer and college-educated scientist), if you use your food dollars to purchase organically-produced animal products, you are supporting a system of animal production that will likely have a detrimental effect on animal health and welfare, especially as organic standards are applied by large companies or by inexperienced farmers who lack basic animal science knowledge.

Animal production practices should be based on science, not perceptions or ideology.

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