When Antibiotics are Necessary-Miley’s Story

Farming isn’t always green lush pastures and rainbows. Sometimes the decisions we have to make are hard and painful. For the past week and a half we have been closely watching a three year old cow of ours named Miley. Miley is a great cow. She is good producer and is very structurally correct. In fact, recently she was one of our show cows at the county fair. But, right now Miley doesn’t feel good.

As farmers it is our job to figure out why. Since Miley and us don’t speak the same language, we have to look at other clues. She is running a fever, isn’t producing much milk and just has that sunken “I don’t feel good look.” Yesterday, Tim talked with our veterinarian and after reveiwing the symptoms and the treatments we tried, Doc said it was most likely pneumonia despite the lack of normal symptoms associated with that disease. Organic treatments have not helped her thus far. We have tried everything in the organic playbook.

Our organic “playbook” Image from Amazon

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rules clearly state that no animal raised under that organic standard shall be treated with antibiotics. BUT  we are also obligated under law to treat an animal with antibiotics if it is the best and most humane way to help the animal. So what do we do?

We will be treating her with antibiotics and if all goes well she will be back to her old self in a couple of weeks. If we don’t treat her, she will continue to suffer and prossibly die. Giving her antibiotics is the most loving thing we can do. While she is on the antibiotics, she will be milked separate from the rest of our herd. But since we are an organic farm, she will never be able to return to our herd. It is really sad. I wish there was some way to have exemptions for cases like this, but there isn’t. And there probably shouldn’t be exemptions.

This is the reason many farmers don’t want to be organic. They probably qualify for 90% of the organic rules, but the thought of selling perfectly good cows makes them cringe. Some organic farmers have two farms, or a good partnership with a conventional farm to “sell” their treated cows to. Once an organic cow goes to a conventional farm, it can never return to being organic.

The NOSB rules are good ones and shouldn’t be messed with. If we start making things gray and wishy washy consumers wouldn’t have trust in the product. I don’t believe there are any consumers that believe NEVER using antibiotics is the very best thing for animals (maybe there are). But, the organic label needs to differentiate itself from other milks and the no antibiotic rule needs to be firm.

To be clear, there are no antibiotics in ANY milk. There are strict withdrawal rules and every load of milk is tested. But what makes organic different is the holistic approach to animal health that organic farmers follow. If consumers want that, they can be confident it is happening with organic products. Organic farmers have extra incentive to make antibiotics the absolute last resort in animal treatment.

So Miley will recover and will be sold to a conventional farm that will let her live out her full productive life. We have good relationships with farms in the area. ( Samantha’s boyfriend has even expressed interest in purchasing her) We are confident she will have a nice and healthy life. We are sad that she has to leave us. These are the times and decisions that make farming hard.


Update: Miley’s Story continues here and here. We later find out that Miley has an infected heart. Also read what happens to her now that she isn’t organic. 

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, www.zweberfarms.com. Connect with us on FacebookTwitterand YouTube.

21 thoughts on “When Antibiotics are Necessary-Miley’s Story

  1. Kathy


    Thank you for talking about this topic. As a veterinarian, you hit home on the aspect of animal farming organically that I have the hardest time with. It looks like we struggle with the same issue, just in different ways. While your organic customers obviously buy your milk for their concern of antibiotic usage, I also can’t imagine they don’t feel for you in this case. Best of luck to Miley.

  2. SlowMoneyFarm

    It is for these situations that we don’t strive for organic labels. While we use minimal amounts, it can make the difference in animal welfare but losing an animal entirely for a mild, treatable ailment is more than we can do. Sorry about Miley – tough decisions. 🙁

  3. farmerswife30

    I’m sorry you’ll be losing a good cow. I’ve never thought about issues like that, since we have a conventional dairy farm. I would like to thank you for pointing out sometimes anitbiotics are neccessary and for stressing the fact they are not present in any milk on store shelves. I wish Miley a speedy recovery and best wishes in her new home.

  4. mem_somerville (@mem_somerville)

    Actually, there are some people so pure they’ll let animals suffer, or give them wacky homeopathic crank treatments instead. I have some difficulty trusting people like that. I don’t think their judgment is very good.


    Anti-science positions like Cummin’s are not my idea of food safety. It seems to me that science could offer a middle ground so you wouldn’t lose your favorite animals.

  5. John

    Hmm I wonder how sustainable this approach is, meaning: What would happen if everybody goes organic and all farmers follow “the holistic approach”? (Which from an organic proponent’s point of view should be the ideal world.) Then there would be no conventional farms to sell a “disgraced” cow to… the system only works as long as organic farmers can offload unwanted animals onto others. So what would happen in a purely organic world? Sick animals would be left to die? Because there would be no use for them if they recovered after getting proper treatment so that they would have to be killed anyway? Great approach… But as long as it helps organics to be self-righteous they’re better not told that they simply offload problems to others outside their bubble… Very elegant solution indeed.

    1. zweberfarms Post author

      John, thank you for your comment. Like you pointed out and I tried to point out, the world isn’t black and white. There is a lot of gray. The issue is that for a label to be trusted by consumers, there cannot be any gray. I cannot say what would happen in a purely organic world, but I can say that no matter what, farmers always put the care of their animals first (conventional and organic).

  6. Steven Roach (@facthealth)

    Organic livestock farmers in Europe are allowed some antibiotic use as are fruit growers in the US. I think changes along the lines with European rules may be appropriate for the US. The challenge is to determine when is the use appropriate and how can certifiers and consumers determine whether the rules are being followed.

    1. zweberfarms Post author

      Thank you Steve, I am not very familiar with Europe’s policies. Like you said, the challenge is to determine when the use is appropriate. Information about natural and holistic approached keep advancing. I know an apple grower who says they need about 3 more years in breeding advancements so that they can eliminate antibiotic uses on their trees.

    1. zweberfarms Post author

      Mem_somerville, thank you for your comments. We use many preventative techniques, provide a low stress environment, and then use natural treatments when illness does occur. Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM, author of “Alternative Treatments”, is well respected by both conventional and organic dairy farmers.
      It has been interesting to see the “conventional” world starting to embrace many of the things “organic” farmers have been doing for years. It is also exciting to see research starting to “prove” the natural treatments we use can be backed by science.
      Just like the human medical world is ever involving, so is animal science. We live in very exciting times and it is important to keep an open mind to all possibilities

      1. zweberfarms Post author

        Your comments have become disrespectful. Please keep comments respectful to encourage open conversations amount tough issues.

      2. cowartandmore

        While I do not serve any organic dairies (I am a veterinarian), I am familiar with acupuncture techniques on cattle and their positive outcomes. There are many methods to treat disease in cattle. I applaud Emily and her family for educating themselves on the best production methods for their dairy farm.

  7. Paul

    Hello Zwebers! Your post is spot on, and I appreciate your honesty. I understand your approach to organic farming, I do however have a problem with SOME organic consumers. I hope this post will help explain the difficulties farmers and dairymen run into trying to produce an organic product. Maybe we need standards saying consumers who have had cough syrup or flu vaccines can’t eat organic, LOL! We have to take care of our animals first. I applaud you for treating Miley, and your handling of the organic issue. Nice Post.

    1. zweberfarms Post author

      Thanks! I almost felt like I was airing our dirty laundry when I was writing this post. But, it is important for people to know that life isn’t perfect. No matter how farmers choose to farm, the care of their animals will always be their number one priority. It just looks different on each farm.

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