Maintaining a Healthy Herd

Who says you cannot reach out to others and learn something in social media? The last two evenings I have been conversing with a fellow lady dairy farmer in New York state. She had concerns that organic dairies just sent to slaughter animals when they had health troubles. As a veterinarian, she was concerned that animals, that would be healthy otherwise if they were given antibiotics, were needlessly slaughtered. She was also concerned that unhealthy animals were sent to slaughter. This is a concern I hear quite frequently from non-organic dairy farmers. I hope I can address this concern today. While I cannot speak for other organic dairies, I can speak for ours and what we do to maintain a healthy herd. We love our animals and try to do what is right by them.

The first thing we do is make sure our herd is healthy from the soil up. Feed for our animals can only be healthy if it is grown on healthy soil. We maintain soil health by using animal manure for fertilizer and using crop rotations.

Next, we make sure our herd is fed a healthy forage based diet. Our cows graze from about the end of April until mid October. They are also fed some corn silage and concentrate mix which is balanced to complement the quality of pasture they are grazing. The rest of the year they are fed a balanced diet of stored feeds to maintain health. Minerals and vitamins such as kelp, calcium, copper, etc are mixed in. This is similar to giving the cows a multi-vitamin.

The third step is giving the cows plenty of exercise, fresh water, sun, and clean areas to sleep. In the grazing season the cows will walk between a quarter mile to a mile each day to and from the pastures. They are given plenty of room to graze, sleep, and do natural cow behavior. In the non-grazing season, the cows are given access to a large pasture area with treeline wind break. They also have free access to a sand bedded Coverall building to sleep in.

Our next step in maintaining herd health is breeding for those traits that healthy herds require. We are not interested in those large, boney cows that are considered “type” aka blue ribbon winning. While we do have several strings of registered cattle we show in contests, we are mainly interested in cows that will be healthy in our herd for a long time. We need cows that can walk long distances, efficiently convert feed and live for many years. We are not looking to have the highest producing cows, but we want cows that can live 12-14 years with little or no health problems.

Other things we do to maintain herd health are: consistent and caring calf care, well trained employees and access to some of the leading veterinarians in alternative animal care.

So what happens when animals become sick? We first use alternative health remedies. I have written several blogs on the topic. As organic farmers we are required by law to treat an animal with antibiotics if it is the only way to maintain the animal’s health. Once an animal is treated with antibiotics we finish the process of getting her healthy again and observe drug withdrawal periods.

So does that mean she goes directly to slaughter? NO WAY! In our case, we sell them to conventional dairies whom we have good relationships with.  We know that our cows will then have a second chance at a long productive life. Is it “fair” that we need to sell them? Maybe not, but consumers of organic dairy products need to have 100% assurance that no antibiotics were used in the animals that produce their products. We have about four or five animals a year that need to be treated this way.

Animals leave our farm in other ways too. Each year each of our 100 dairy cows has one calf (maybe twins). Since we are not growing our herd at the present time, we will not have enough room for all those calves when they become milking age. Most of our bull calves are sold at about three weeks old at a local auction. The calves are raised as feeder steers on area beef farms. We keep most of our heifer calves until they are bred. At that point we decide if they will join our herd or not. They need to be the most healthy and strong animals to make the cut. We are fortunate to rarely lose a calf to sickness, so we have an abundance of healthy heifers to pick from. These healthy heifers will replace those cows that have lived long productive lives.

During the course of the conversation one Twitter follower asked what our number break down looked like for cows that leave our farm:

  • 4-5 animals per year because they were treated with antibiotics. These are sent to conventional farms to live out their long lives.
  • 10 healthy heifers and 10-15 healthy cows are sold to other organic or conventional herds, because we don’t have room for them in the milking herd.
  • 30 bull calves are sold to neighbors or brought to local auction and sold as feeder calves.
  • 5-6 cows are culled for beef each year. These are cows that have lived long healthy lives. We don’t send a cow to slaughter unless she is healthy.

The main message is, we care for our animals deeply and hate to see any of them leave. Whether we are organic or conventional, animals still will need to leave our farm. We hope to do what is right by them and help them live healthy, long lives.

So, I hope this post has given you a better idea of how animals are treated on our farm. Like I said, in the beginning, I cannot speak for all organic farmers. But I know plenty that farm just like us and I believe we are in the majority.


Zweber Farms is a 4th generation family operated organic dairy.  We are proud Organic Valley farmer members and sell our milk under that label. We also specialize in sustainably raised beef, pork and chicken and sell it directly to customers in Minnesota.Visit our website to learn more,

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