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Organic animal health and welfare

Animal health costs are continuing to rise, and along with supplementary feeds (apart from interest and fertiliser) are the two largest farm expenses in recent years. The range of veterinary products on the market today has never been as great, aided by sales promotions and selling incentives. The “quick-fix” attitude is very apparent, and prevention by changing management is not seen as the first option.

There is also the challenge of increasing resistance from bacteria and parasites to modern animal remedies, and no new chemicals on the horizon to treat these future challenges.

The key is to treat the cause and not the symptoms, not forgetting that a disease is only the manifestation of the cause. A little self-analysis may be in order, eg what management practices have I put in place that has caused the disease?

Some general principles
  • Farming animals under an organic system requires an even higher standard of management than under a conventional system.
  • Preventing disease is always cheaper than finding cures.
  • Healthy animals come from healthy pastures which come from healthy soils.
  • When animals are sick, don’t delay in making a decision to treat them. Under the new Animal Welfare Act 1999, animals must not be allowed to suffer pain or distress. Set intervention levels where conventional treatments will be administered.
  • Intervention must be early to ensure successful treatment.
  • If treatment under an organic regime is not effective, animals must be treated conventionally.
  • If animals under a certified organic system receive a conventional animal heath treatment, then they must be quarantined for twice the Meat Withholding label period in a designated quarantine area.
  • Homeopathy is approved for treatment all animals.
What is quarantine?

This is a designated area of a farm where animals are held until they are free from the after effects of the treatment. It’s a sort of emptying out time for the animal. The area must be well fenced and secure. An animal that has received conventional treatment and completed their quarantine period, can be returned to the organic area but lose their organic certification for a designated period. This period varies with the certification agency but is generally 12 months. Permanent identification and keeping accurate records is an essential part of the quarantine process.

Stress and distress

“Stress” leading on to “distress” may be hard to define, but it is the core of most animal health problems. This has now been clearly measured in pigs, poultry and dairy cows. Some stress is acceptable but problems occur when stress extends to cause distress.

If an animal’s immune system is healthy and working well, then it can fend off disease. Animals have natural antibodies that fend off all disease and stress can reduces their effectiveness. Conversely good animal husbandry builds up a healthy immune system, and reducing stress is very much part of this. .

Which are stressful times for stock?

There are many examples, and they probably coincide with stress times for humans on the farm:

  • Birth
  • Docking and castration
  • Dehorning
  • Weaning
  • Shearing
  • Badly discipline dogs
  • Transport
  • Sticks and electric goads
  • Shouting and beating
  • Excessive unfamiliar noise
  • Swimming and high-pressure hosing
  • Sale yards  
  • Continual disturbance
  • Mixing mobs and meeting strangers
  • Mixing age groups
  • Mixing breeds
  • Mating
  • Changes in diet
  • Summer heat and drought
  • No shade
  • Poor tethering with a danger of strangulation
  • Food and water shortage
  • The smell of blood  
Diseases of dairy cattle

These happen so often with cows that were milked too long and have not been properly fed during the dry period to regain a condition score of at least 5 for calving.


Bloat seems to become a less of a challenge for organic farmers than their conventional counterparts. Successful organic farmers suggest that as the soil health improves bloat becomes less of a challenge. Feeding natural rock salt and reducing potash fertilizers, feeding hay when pasture is lush, planting more fibrous species such as tall fescue and cocksfoot. Make sure cows are not held off pasture for too long at milking time. This will prevent gorging when they start grazing and will also benefit digestion. Drenching animals with Sunflower, Canola or Paraffin oil and/or spraying the pasture with Seaweed can be used as a prevention under an organic system.

Metabolic diseases - milk fever, grass staggers and ketosis.

These can be prevented by having cows in Condition Score of at least 5 for calving. Treatment with calcium borogluconate is acceptable, as is Cal-Mag. Homeopathic remedies can be used effectively, if used in good time and not as a last-minute quick fix.


Again prevention is essential and the principles of the SAMM plan must be used. Reducing stress, homeopathy, and using clean sheltered paddocks to calve in have been shown to work well.

There is now a firm view that obsession to get Somatic Cells down below 200,000 cells/ml of milk is not a wise move. Reducing SCC to very low levels is to preventing cows using their natural immunity to fight infection. A major concern is heifers calving with mastitis. Culling cows with persistent infections is a wise move, and not keeping daughters from these cows as replacements.

The milking machine is vital in preventing mastitis developing and spreading. Machines should have a full test before calving and a mini test (vacuum and pulsators) after the peak of production.

A successful practice is to put 1litre of cider vinegar/cow/month (Perhaps a little more over stressfull periods) in their automatic drenching system. In cold weather they feed plenty of hay. For a cow with a hard quarter, mothering a calf on and treat with homeopathy or Active Manuka Honey. ( Contains anti-bacterial properties)

Foot problems

These are caused by impatience by stock people, poor races, motorbikes and biting dogs. Fix all of these and foot problems will disappear. Zinc or copper sulphate can be used as a treatment..


A vaccination programme can prevent this. This is acceptable under a certified organic system..

Facial eczema

Start using zinc supplementation at least three weeks before any likely rise in sport counts. Zinc oxide for drenching is allowed. Homeopathy remedies are allowed.

Tail docking

This is prohibited in animals of any age.

The majority of animals health challenges can be overcome with a proactive animal health management system.

Operating the farm dairy and effluent systems

Most conventional detergents and sanitisers are acceptable within an organic system. The standard recommendations for farm dairy hygiene set out by MAF and Dairy Companies should be followed. They pose no threat to an organic system. Glycerine and Iodine-based teat sprays are acceptable

Farmers are encouraged to use all farm effluent on the farm, to add nutrients and water to the soil. If possible it is best to divert washing water from the effluent system as it contains the bulk of the detergents and sanitisers. These washings can be held in a separate tank for disposal off the farm.

Diseases of calves

Overfeeding, bacterial infections and viruses can cause these. Prevention by good hygiene and correct feeding is vital.. Feeding yogurt to calves and using homeopathy can be used. Some conventional treatments can be used, this varies depending on your certification. Oral rehydration with glucose electrolyte is permitted

Navel ill

Iodine can be used to treat navels at birth as a prevention.

Internal parasites

Conventional drenches can not be used be used on a regular basis. If they are used, then animals must be quarantined for an appropriate period.

External parasites - lice

Vegetable oil and sulphur preparations can be used.


This can be prevented by vaccination. Quarantine is not needed with proprietary vaccines.


Prevention is best, by grazing calves on clean pasture. Using a coccicidiostat in calf meal is not approved.


This is best done with a hot cauterising iron before six weeks of age or as soon as the horn bud is large enough to fit the iron. Note that using a local anaesthetic will cause loss of certification and stock will need to be quarantined for twice the withholding period.


This is best done as soon as possible after birth with a rubber ring.


All colostrum, milk and milk powders must be from an approved organic source. All concentrate meals and hay must also be from an approved organic source. No artificial additives are allowed to any feeds.

Diseases of beef Cattle
Metabolic diseases - milk fever, grass staggers and ketosis

These can be prevented by management, for example not letting cows get too thin or extremely fat before calving, and making sure they have a rising feeding level up to calving. Then they should be well fed when milking heavily after calving. Calcium borogluconate or natural vitamin C may be used to prevent grass staggers. Cal-Mag can also be used.

Internal parasites

Conventional drenches are not allowed. Good rotational pasture management of young stock will cut down the need to drench. See dairy cattle.

External parasites - lice

Conventional pourons are not allowed. See dairy cattle.

Foot problems

These should not be a major problem in beef cattle. Selection of bulls for sound feet should be a priority, especially when they now have been selected for large mature size.

Facial eczema

Start using zinc supplementation at least three weeks before any likely rise in sport counts. Zinc oxide for drenching is allowed. Homeopathy remedies are allowed.

Growth stimulants and hormones

These are not allowed in an organic farming system.

Diseases of sheep
Internal parasites

Conventional drenches can not be used See comment on cows on a routine basis. If used quarantine procedures must be abided by.. Use a feacal egg count (FEC) to identify if intestinal worms are the cause of ill-thrift. There are many reasons for ill-thrift including worms. Others may be lack of minerals or feed, overstocking and poor performing stock and stress caused by the above factors.

Use clean pastures, rotational graze sheep with other species of stock (not goats), a more varied pasture species, feed crops, wean later and maximize growth weights. Identify danger periods by using FEC .

Breed for resistance and or resilience to internal parasites. Select your ram breeder with care

There are commercial organic drenches on the market that will perform well in conjunction with excellent management practices.

External parasites

Check and fix the cause - it could be stress or feeding. Maintain animals in good condition and feed them well. Some organic treatments are available - such as mineral oils. Note - wool must not carry any residues that will affect market specifications. Vegetable oil and sulphur preparations can be used.


Blowflies are not the primary challenge - they develop due to a break down in the overall management system that has been neglected. Fly generally is the secondary cause, an autopsy may indicate that he animals was diseased prior to being attacked by fly. Keep sheep in good condition, prevent scouring and keep them clean. Use fly traps around sheep yards and danger sites, clean up dead carcasses.

Neem and Tee Tree oil, garlic and pyrethrum can be used successfully to prevent and treat fly.


Again look at the management to see possible causes. If you don’t fix these you will be treating feet for the rest of your days. Zinc sulphate and copper sulphate are approved for use. Use homeopathy. Cull any sheep that has chronic problems. Be careful when selecting yours sires..

Pulpy kidney. tetanus, blacks disease, blackleg and malignant oedema

All these bacterial diseases can be treated by a 5 in 1 vaccine. Exposure to these diseases by young animals will also build up a natural immunity. Under an organic system a reduction in vaccine use must be implemented, and can only be used on a continual basis if a need is shown on your farm.

Scabby mouth

Vaccination can be approved if you can show there is a need for it on your farm.

Facial eczema

Start using zinc supplementation at least three weeks before any likely rise in sport counts. Zinc oxide for drenching is allowed. Homeopathy remedies are allowed.

Lambing problems and bearings

Have ewes in good condition during pregnancy, fit but not fat. Reduce feed intake in the last 3 weeks of pregnancy, without reducing it drastically. Appetite declines in any case over this period.

Sleepy sickness (twin lamb disease)

Inadequate management prior to lambing can manifest in sleepy sickness. Maintain an even feed plane to prevent the animal having to mobilise body fat. If reduction in feed is necessary, reduce slowly.

Vitamin B12 or Cobalt deficiency

Cobalt use is restricted but can be used after application for approval.

Diseases of deer

The effects of this disease can be reduced if weaning is delayed.

Internal parasites

Same as for sheep and cattle.

External parasites

Same as for sheep and cattle.

Facial eczema

Deer are very prone to facial eczema. Start using zinc supplementation at least three weeks before any likely rise in sport counts. Zinc oxide for drenching is allowed. Homeopathy remedies are allowed.


This must be done according to the code of welfare, and with the approval of the organic approval organisation. If any prohibited drug is used in velveting, the animal must be quarantined and will lose certification. The velvet won’t have certified status.

Diseases of meat goats
Internal parasites

See sheep

External parasites

See sheep


See sheep

Diseases of milking goats
Internal parasites

See sheep

External parasites

See sheep


See sheep


Prevention is vital and the milking machine is a critical part of the equipment. Make sure it is in perfect working order and get it checked mid season. Dairy hygiene must be of a high level. Use homeopathic remedies as preventions and for helping to cure clinical cases.

Diseases of pigs

Pigs must not be run under intensive conditions, and strong emphasis is given in the regulations for animals to be allowed to display their natural behaviour. As a result of these conditions, free-range pigs suffer from very few diseases.


Pigs must graze pasture, which complies with the regulations, whether on the home farm or run-off, and any concentrate feed must be made from organically-grown grain. NO artificial additives are allowed. Full records of feed purchase and use must be kept. Ample and continuous clean water must be provided


See sheep and cattle.

Internal parasites

See sheep and cattle.

Tail docking

This is prohibited.

Teeth clipping of piglets

This is prohibited

Scouring in young piglets

Examine the likely management cause of the problem and fix this first. Homeopathic remedies are used.

Diseases of poultry

Poultry must not be run in intensive conditions. Only full free-range systems should be considered as sustainable organic poultry production. Full time access to well sheltered free range must be allowed.


Stocking rate of houses of deep litter floor space, slatted floor space, or on framed perches is specified. Adequate perching space and nesting boxes must be provided. The stocking rate of outside runs is specified and they must provide natural shelter and provision of dust baths. Maximum stocking rates are stipulated.


Any grain-based feed must have been grown under organically approved conditions. Full records of feed purchase and use must be kept. No artificial additives are allowed. Ample and continuous clean water must be provided.

Naturally occurring minerals and vitamins can be used. Synthetic vitamins can only be used in laying stock up to 10 weeks of age, after approval from the organic approval organisation. Feed enhancers and antibiotics are not permitted.

Internal parasites

Good husbandry avoiding continual ground infection from adult birds.

External parasites

Dust bathing facilities should be provided. Disinfection of housing can only be done with approved materials.


Coccidiostats are not permitted. Change on to clean ground regularly to avoid continual infections.


Vaccinations of day-old chicks, broiler chickens and laying hens must have prior written approval of the certification body.


Beak trimming and toe cutting are not permitted.

Egg collection and storage

Eggs should be collected regularly and be free from manure. They should be stored in a cool (below 15C) in a dark, odour-free area with pointed end facing downwards. They must be clearly identified at point of sale.

Broiler production

These should be reared in movable housing because high feed intake produces large amounts of droppings on to the pasture. Stocking rates are clearly defined under organic registration for example 833 birds/ha.

“Any animal health challenges can be overcome by a change in management, less stress and better feeding. Regulations differ between certifying organisations therefore It is the responsibility of the licensee to always understand and comply with the regulations of the certifying body”.

Information provided by:
Mr Denis Cadwallader, Organic Farming Specialist. 22 May Avenue, Napier, New Zealand
Phone (06) 834-3405, Fax (06) 834-3406, Mobile 025-481-782, Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mr Cadwallader is guest tutor in Organic Farming at the Waikato Polytechnic.
Phone (07) 834-8806 for further information on courses.

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