Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Animal health on organic dairy farms

At this moment we are having the kick-off meeting of a new European research project entitled “Improved management practices and alternative treatments to improve animal health in organic farming systems”; in short: IMPRO. Of course it is way too early to provide any research results, but it will be interesting to have a look at the background of this project.

It is known that consumers (at least in western countries) are becoming increasingly sensitive about health and welfare problems in commercial livestock production systems. They expect their food to be produced with greater respect for the needs of farm animals. Research has shown that organic farming is often directly associated with an enhanced level of animal health and welfare. For many people, organic farming appears to be a superior alternative to conventional livestock production. Organic farming has committed itself to outperforming conventional farming in a number of areas including animal health. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) states that organic husbandry focuses on improving animal health and preventing disease through a holistic approach, thus minimising use of synthetic medicine.
Now let’s have a look at the requirements of organic dairy farming. Basically these are (please note that requirements may differ between regions in the world; I copied these from OMAFRA):
·         Managing crop and pasture land without the use of synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered (modified) organisms (GMOs), fungicides, herbicides or insecticides for 3 consecutive years
·         Maintaining accurate records for production management, including machinery usage and cleaning, rented land and storage
·         Feeding 100% organic rations to cows and replacement heifers (with certain exceptions, such as minerals and essential ingredients that cannot be sourced as organic)
·         Avoiding the use of antibiotics or synthetic hormones - under the supervision of a veterinarian, antibiotic use is permitted twice a year per cow but the withdrawal period must be extended; vaccination, vitamins and electrolytes are allowed.
·         Providing access to certified organic grazing land throughout the growing season, weather permitting. Pasture must provide at least 30% of the total dry matter intake. The animal should have access to the outside throughout the year.

When looking at these demands it becomes apparent that these demands are not really related to improved animal health. It is known that pasturing, if done correctly, is related to better health of dairy cows. On the other hand, the high price of organic feed might lead to suboptimal feeding of cows. The rules with regards to the use of drugs might be related to non-optimal treatment when animals are ill. In short, the benefits of organic systems are primarily related to environmentally-friendly production. Studies have shown that the health of cattle on organic dairy farms is, on average, not better than the health of cattle on conventional dairy farms.

So with this in mind, the real animal health status in organic dairy farming does not in all respect meet consumers’ expectations or their associations. Improvements are therefore crucial to maintain the consumers’ confidence and their willingness to pay premium prices.

The strategic aim of the IMPRO project is to substantially overcome the weak points in current health management strategies on organic dairy farms and increase the possibilities for proactive herd health management. Attention is not only given to developing all kinds of tools but as well to the farm-specific costs and benefits of recommended measures, to optimise farm-specific allocation of available resources, and to emerge incentives for health improvements. Moreover the motivation and attitudes of the stakeholders (farmer, advisor, and veterinarian) directly involved in health management practice will be studied.

More info can be find on the IMPRO website (which will be filled in due time).

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