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Follow organic dairy farmer Jonathan Gates as he reports weekly from his Vermont family farm. Howmars Farm is a certified organic dairy farm, one of many Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative farmer members who supply the milk that goes into making Stonyfield's yogurts and smoothies. The entire family pitches in on this third-generation farm. Check out some of the happenings on his farm and post your comments. Jonathan loves to get feedback from readers.

When an organic heifer needs antibiotics

When I am visiting with other farmers who are not organic producers, one of the first questions they ask me is what do I do to treat sick cows since we're not allowed to use antibiotics. I then give "the speech" about all the approved-for-organic use products I use in managing the health of my dairy herd, some of which are the same things the conventional farmers use.  And I emphasize that good management practices like clean housing, good feed, clean milking equipment, proper milking practices, and regular herd checks will keep animals healthy, so you don't need to worry about treating a lot of sick animals. With all of this said, I recently had to use antibiotics to save a cow's life.

A first-calf heifer, PJ, had calved (given birth) about three months ago and was doing great. She was giving lots of milk and wasn't afraid of pushing some of the older cows around to get the place at the feed bunk that she wanted. Then she started having some problems. She fell a couple of times out in the free-stall area, and then one morning at milking she fell right in front of the milking parlor door. We were able to coax her into one of the maternity pens. I called our vet service, and later in the morning Dr. K and a vet student came to check on PJ.I called our vet service, and later in the morning Dr. K and a vet student came to check on PJ. By then, she was showing some symptoms that were giving me an inkling of what was going on. She was starting to circle to the right, and any effort to make her turn the other way was unsuccessful. After checking her out. Dr. K was sure she had listeria, or "circling disease". It is a bacterial disease that affects the central nervous system of the animal. It is fatal if untreated, and there is no non-organic remedy for the disease. Our only chance to save PJ was to give her antibiotics.

It is clearly stated in our organic standards that we need to do whatever we can to keep an animal from suffering and to prevent their death when possible. This includes the use of antibiotics, under the advice and guidance of a veterinarian. This meant that if we pulled PJ through her illness, we could not keep her on our farm to produce milk for us ever again..

Dr. K felt the disease had not progressed too far, and that PJ would probably pull through with good care and proper medicine. I didn't hesitate in my decision to go ahead with the treatment. Before the vets left the farm, PJ had been given her first dose of antibiotic intravenously. I was to give her the same treatment over the next four days and hope for the best. The other thing I did was to call the NOFA-VT office to let them know I had treated a cow with antibiotics, what her ID tag was, and that I would be selling her as soon as she was better. The next 48 hours were touch and go. PJ got worse in the next 24 to 36 hours, but then she started gradually improving. I was diligent in giving her the antibiotic through the IV tube, and in keeping her fed and watered. On the third day, she was standing up again and she just kept getting better.

A few days ago, three weeks after starting treatment, I called my neighbors, the Coreys, to see if they were interested in buying PJ to add to their dairy herd. I was so happy when they said they were interested. Patty came down later that afternoon to look at PJ, and was quite sure they would take her. This meant PJ would only be a mile down the road at the Corey farm, and be out grazing in the summer with their mixed herd of Jerseys and Holsteins. The next afternoon, Patty and Kenny loaded PJ into their trailer to take her back to their farm. Today, I visited the Corey farm to see how PJ was doing. Patty brought me to the barn, and I saw PJ nice and comfortable in their spacious tie-stall barn. She was milking great, and was becoming accustomed to her new surroundings. A far cry from a month ago when she was close to dying! I was thankful she could go to such a great farm that was so close to ours. Maybe next summer I'll get a picture of her out on pasture with her new herd mates.


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I was saddened to see you had to sell PJ but I was happy to see she isn't far from home. I was also very interested in the organic farming standards and how strict they are! I buy only Stoneyfield Farm dairy products and many times I'm asked why I spend the extra money. I refer them to your blog and the Have a Cow reports! They often laugh but then are amazed! Thank you for this very interesting story and please do post a picture of PJ! Thank you also for your dedication to organic farming! One of my fondest childhood memories was visiting my great-aunt's dairy farm (in those days, everything was organic) and helping to milk her cows! They all had names and different personalities and they had such beautiful eyes. I'm 64 now but have never forgotten my aunt's lectures on cleanliness in the barns and how important the soil was. We have come full circle, thank goodness, and are back to where we should be! Thanks again!

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