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Using Biologicals in the Organic Herd

By A.J. Luft, DVM

Added September 11, 2013. There are a number of biological therapies available for all types of animals from the conventional pharmaceutical world. A classic example is vaccines. I am continually amazed at the number of organic producers who do not regularly use vaccinations of any kind, and some who still think they are not permitted. A few weeks ago an organic producer called me and asked if it was okay to vaccinate some heifers he had just sold against respiratory diseases per buyer’s request. Certifiers have to give their approval first, but to my knowledge all biologicals are permitted. If a preventive or treatment therapy is permitted, why would anyone not capitalize on it and add it to the toolbox? Other examples of modern biological therapies are antibodies, antitoxins, cell wall extracts, and toxoids.

I would like to focus on vaccines. In a perfect world where we could all be ‘top-notch’ managers, where animals would be under no stress, and where diet would be consistent day after day we would not need any vaccines. I have a herd of dual-purpose cattle at home. I do not vaccinate my cattle for anything including pneumonia, because they are not confined. I brought a neighbor’s purebred Dexter bull to my place to breed some half-bred Dexter heifers. One week, later one of my cows came down with shipping fever and was miserable for three days. Both the bull and my cattle were clinically asymptomatic, but the bull was a carrier of the shipping fever virus. To this day I do not know why that one particular cow came down with shipping fever. She appeared to be one of the healthiest animals on the farm. I will never bring another adult animal on my farm again without vaccinating my own native cattle first; then secondly, making sure the in-coming cattle are ‘properly vaccinated’; and last, quarantining the new animals for up to four weeks before allowing them to commingle together.

I continually see and hear about a lot of pneumonia problems in young stock on organic herds. No one would argue that it wouldbe best if those three to six month old heifer calves could all be running outside with everything else, but for various reasons they are often housed inside a poorly ventilated building in a corner pen out of the way. If we know this is where we are going to house this age of cattle and we are allowed to use vaccines then there is no excuse, in my book, to not give an intranasal vaccine against respiratory viruses before they are placed there.

The old cliché that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is just as good today or tomorrow as it was yesterday. In the past, vaccinations were arguably not ‘clean’ enough and sometimes there would be outbreaks following vaccinations. Today’s vaccines are very ‘clean’ and advanced, and we do not see the problems of the past. Pregnant animals can abort after being vaccinated, but usually this is because someone did not follow the vaccine label or they combined too many vaccines at one time. Anaphylactic reactions can happen with any vaccine and that will probably never change, but always keep a bottle of epinephrine close at hand.

Do not misunderstand. I am not a big pusher of vaccines in my practice. One can make an argument that vaccines are over used, and that vaccines do cover up poor management. I do not want to support the pharmaceutical industry any more than I have to, but
if we continue to confine and/or overcrowd animals we take the risk of disease outbreaks. I will give another example. This past month I have been taking numerous environmental samples from my client’s farms and screening for Salmonella. There is way too much Salmonella on our farms. Salmonella is a ‘bad’ bug, and any serotype that is culture is significant. It is an opportunist waiting for its immune-suppressed victim to come along and ingest it. We also know that Salmonella is very resistant to most of the antibiotics we use in livestock. If producers are going to keep confined/ overcrowded livestock during this time of the year then this bug is a constant threat. Thinking prevention with vaccinations is one way to possibly avoid the big outbreak. If some of these examples are familiar to you then review your situation with your veterinarian and build a sound vaccination program.

Graduate of the Ohio State University in 1996, Dr. A.J. is part owner of Chickasaw Veterinary Center in Chickasaw, Ohio. He has been working with organic dairy producers for the past 10 years and spends 25-30% of his work schedule with organic herds. He is loosely affiliated with Organic Valley and Ohio Ecological Farm and Food Association (OEFFA). Dr. A.J. also operates a small family farm with dual-purpose cattle. He can be reached by cell phone 419-305-5502 or e-mail

Dr. A.J. will be a speaker at the NODPA Field Days this September; he and Dr. Susan Beal will be panelists on a workshop titled: ‘Odairy Live! Ask the Vet Q&A’. Send your ‘ask the vet’ questions to NODPA and we will make sure they get to Susan and A.J. for their workshop.

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