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What Happens When Farm Animals Raised to be “No Antibiotics Ever” Get Sick?

Do you look for USDA Certified Organic or “raised without antibiotics” labels when you buy groceries? How do those choices affect the way the animals are raised?

What Happens When an Farm Animals Raised to be “No Antibiotics Ever” Get Sick?

One question I often hear is “what happens to animals who are being raised without antibiotics or following USDA Certified Organic guidelines, when they get sick?. Under the Certified Organic guidelines, if an animal requires antibiotics due to illness, that animal will receive treatment and be permanently removed from the organic, no-antibiotics herd and placed in a traditional herd after proper withdrawal times have passed.

According to the USDA, The term “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the farmer can provide copies of records that show the animals were raised without antibiotics.

I recently had the chance to talk with two Indiana farmers who are raising their livestock as “no antibiotics ever” or under USDA Certified Organic guidelines. Pete, whose family runs a 3rd generation certified organic dairy farm in Northeast Indiana; and Drew, who grew up on a traditional pig farm and recently started raising “no antibiotics added” pigs.

Organic Dairy Farming

Pete started farming with his dad in 1985 in the heart of Amish country in Northeast Indiana. He now farms with two of his seven children. The farm was started as a traditional dairy farm. As they started to look for ways to stabilize their milk prices, they began considering becoming an organic dairy. Pete’s farm began the transition to organic methods in 2003, and in 2006, they were certified USDA Organic. (It takes 3 years for a farm to get an organic certification.)

What Happens If Organic Dairy Cows Get Sick?

Pete’s farm is a relatively small dairy with only 60 milking cows. While their cows sometimes do get sick, this is happening less and less over time. To maintain their organic status, Pete’s cows cannot be treated with antibiotics. One of the standards of care in the organic program (and a standard that every farmer adheres to, regardless of organic status) is that treatments should not be withheld from a sick animal. Farmers do everything in their power to get their animals feeling better as fast as they can. Pete has a lot of resources available – aspirin for when the cows are uncomfortable, aloe and liniment cream for mastitis, intravenous calcium and oral calcium for milk fever, mineral supplements and probiotics for calf diarrhea, and many herbal remedies – just to name a few.

When Pete first transitioned their farm to organic, he quickly learned what treatments to use and when.  Of his 60 cows, only around 10 of them need any type of non-antibiotic treatment over the course of a year. He knows this because he must keep detailed records of which cows receive which treatment, and when. (Every farmer keeps these records.)

What Happens if Organic Dairy Cows Need Antibiotics?

Sometimes, animals can get an infection that can only be treated with antibiotics. Every couple of years, I get a bad cold that eventually progresses to a sinus infection. In the early stages, I try things other than antibiotics – because the cold is caused by a virus, and antibiotics don’t do anything to treat viruses. Once the bacteria set in and the sinus infection starts, I need antibiotics to get better. The same thing happens in animals.

Farmers and veterinarians watch sick animals closely to see if they will get better on their own, or with non-antibiotic treatments, before giving antibiotics. On a traditional farm, an animal treated with antibiotics needs to wait through the withdrawal period, usually in the sick pen, but then goes back to the herd once she is feeling better and the antibiotics have left their bodies. On an organic farm, once that animal receives antibiotics, she is no longer considered an organic animal. Rather than rejoining her organic herd, she will join a traditional herd of cows that may have received antibiotics during their lives.

Raising Antibiotic-Free Pigs

Drew grew up on a traditional pig farm. Recently, he partnered with a company that provides grocery stores with pork that is raised without the use of antibiotics. These pigs are not certified USDA organic, but they are raised with many of the same standards.

By the way, did you know that all meat and milk in your grocery store are antibiotic free?

Farmers must keep records when they give antibiotics to any animal and follow strict withdrawal times before milk or meat is sent to the processor. The withdrawal time ensures there are no harmful antibiotic residues in the food we eat.

Drew buys piglets from another partner farm once they are old enough to be weaned from their mothers. As part of the company’s policies, the pigs must be kept outdoors or in an open shelter, and they do not have their tails docked when they were born. Because the pigs have longer tails, a lot of the pigs chew on the tails of their herd-mates. This is painful, and can potentially lead to infections in the skin and bones of the tail.

Drew spends a lot of his time monitoring the health of his pigs. Growing up on his family’s farm, he says that most of the management was about keeping the pigs from getting sick in the first place. They did everything they could – including keeping the pigs in climate-controlled barns, in small groups, and docking tails – to keep the pigs healthy. On his new farm, he feels like most of his time is spent reacting to problems, instead of preventing them.

What Happens if Antibiotic-Free Pigs Need Antibiotics?

If Drew and his veterinarian can’t find a way to get his pigs feeling better without using antibiotics, he treats individual pigs with antibiotics, but only as a last resort. Once a pig is treated with an antibiotic, it no longer qualifies as antibiotic-free.  Just like Pete’s organic dairy cows that receive antibiotics, following the appropriate withdrawal times, Drew will sell the pig to a farmer who raises pigs that may have received antibiotics during their lives.

No matter how they raise their animals, farmers are doing it with the well-being of the animal as their first concern. Farm animals don’t go without treatment, whether they are raised on an organic farm or a traditional farm.

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Dr. Marybeth Feutz is a part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are my own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.