Calf and Youngstock Care on an Organic Dairy

This fall we’ve heard from several dairy farmers who have had calves with respiratory problems, and yearlings heifers coming in from pasture with poor condition and parasites.  A certified organic dairy farm can only use antibiotics, coccidiostats (a drug such as Deccox to treat coccidiosis), and most dewormers to save the life of an animal, which they must then sell as non-organic.  Under the National Organic Standards, Ivermectin is the only synthetic dewormer allowed for dairy animals, and it is not effective against several problem organisms including coccidiosis.  An animal treated with ivermectin can never be sold as organic meat, and there is a 90-day milk withholding.

So with these limitations on what can be used to treat animals with, prevention is clearly the best plan.  This article will briefly outline a few of the key issues to consider.

If you are interested in developing a more comprehensive parasite management plan or preventative health care plan, you can call the NOFA VT Dairy and Livestock Technical assistance program and talk with Sarah or Willie. You can also read some of the fact sheets on the website, and your veterinarian can also help you with diagnosis, treatment and a prevention plan.  Also Dr Hue Karremans website has some great articles.  His April 2002 newsletter has a good article on feeding calves and scours prevention, and the January 2002 newsletter has an article on coughing calves.


Dry cow management:  The health of the calves starts with the health of the dam.  A healthy mother, bred to a well-selected bull, fed a balanced diet in a non-stressful environment, will produce the healthiest possible calf.  Check the mineral nutrition of dry cows, and consider talking with your vet to see what vaccinations may be appropriate for your farm.

Calving and colostrum:  Sanitation in the calving and calf housing areas is important.  After birth, colostrum intake is the most important thing to assure good calf health.  Colustrum, which is rich in protein, fat, antibodies, minerals and vitamins helps prevent disease.  Calves must receive this colostrum within the first 24 hours to allow their gut to absorb the antibodies.

Clean housing and clean pasture:  Housing for calves needs to be managed to prevent infection with coccidiosis and other diseases which can become a serious problem in if feed or water gets contaminated with manure.  Ventilation is important in prevention of respiratory problems like pneumonia.  Housing can include pens, hutches, tie stalls or individual pens. Some farms put calves on pasture at birth, and some wait until they are six months old.  If the existing system is working, keep it. However, if there are problems with parasites or disease, switching to a different system is worth investigating.