Skip to main content

11 Oct 2022

How to avoid sick cows in your organic dairy business

As organic dairy farming becomes more popular around the world farmers need to ensure their herds are healthy as well as productive.

This can be quite a challenge given the constraints organic farming adheres to but help is at hand from our experts.

Higher milk prices and ideologies of an easier life make the prospect of organic dairy farming very tempting. However, if organic cows take ill they can be very costly to treat.

VikingHolstein Healthy organic dairy herd

To avoid this you need to operate a comprehensive management programme to ensure cattle stay healthy.

As the demand for organically produced milk increases so, too, does the need for more organic farms. In fact, ten percent of farms around the world can be classed as organic.

High-income countries have more disposable cash to spend on higher-priced foods such as organic milk. Consumers there demand food produced to higher welfare standards using less antibiotics.

Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingRed and Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingJersey offer their top tips on successful organic dairy farming.


Organic restrictions

There are restrictions for organic farmers or different production conditions that must be put in practice as outlined by Peter.

He said: “You have to graze your cows. It's not all under our conditions that they normally graze their cows. You have to do that.

“But there are other rules for use of antibiotics, hormones, fertilisers, and chemicals. So, there is a huge set of rules that you have to take into account when you're an organic farmer.

“Under our conditions, you have to graze from mid-April until November. Of course, in other parts of the world, you have to graze all year round, but that's not possible under Nordic conditions. We have winter and the grass stops growing and it gets too humid and cold, but from mid-April to November.”

VikingRed Healthy organic dairy herd

Treating cows

Treating organic dairy cows for sickness generates its own set of rules, translated differently in some countries around the world.

Jakob said: “There are different rules between organic treatment and conventional treatment. And it also varies around the world so there can be different rules in different countries.

“In general here in our conditions, it is that if you're treating a cow, the way you have to hold back the milk for example, it is double.

“Normally if you have treated a cow, you have to take the milk away for four days. On an organic farm, you have to do it for eight days.

So that's extra costs for the farmer. 

“Also when sending cows to slaughtering. That's a long time before you can send the animal so that has some consequences.

“In some other parts of the world, you are not allowed to treat animals. So, if you have a sick animal, you either need to do something else by using natural medicine. Or you need to sell or cull your cow.”

VikingGoldenCross Healthy organic dairy herd

Consequences of sickness

Sick cows are a huge cost in any herd but in organic herds, they can present extra costs.

Jakob said: “It can be very expensive and for some countries, it is for example a rule that you can only treat a cow three times in its life.

“So, if you have a lot of diseases, you suddenly have cows that you need to slaughter or sell to a conventional farmer. And then you certainly end up not having enough cows for replacement and your business cannot run.”


Working conditions

When an organic dairy farmer has sick cows there are a number of boxes to tick when assessing how to help.

Peter said: “First of all, I look at the conditions he's working under.

Are there any special climatic conditions we have to take into account?

“Is it extreme heat, drought, cold, or humidity, that can affect the frequency of diseases and can affect fertility if conditions are extreme.

“Then I go into analysing what type of genetics will fit this farm and this breed the best and come up with recommendations.

“We have a huge line-up of bulls that will fit well, but you need to distinguish between the profiles of the bulls.

“So, a highly fertile bull that breeds extremely good health, that breed long-lasting, strong, well-attached udders, they will have a profile that fits well for organic farmers.”

VikingJersey Healthy organic dairy herd

Can crossbreeding increase herd health?

Jakob said: “If you have an organic farm you can start crossbreeding to have more health and more fertility in the herd.

“When you are mixing breeds, you will obtain what we call the heterosis effect. And that's especially on the health and fertility and longevity traits.”


Genomic selection

Peter added: “Genomic selection is a very important tool also for organic farmers and we see that more and more farmers genomically test their animals to get more reliable selection tools.

“When you do the genomic selection, you do the genomic tests, you will have higher reliability on your breeding values and you get a better or more reliable result when you select the animals to breed next generation.

“We also see that organic farmers are going for strategies where you use sexed semen on your best part of the herd and on the rest of the herd you use beef.”


Text by: Chris McCullough, freelance journalist

Learn more about the solutions for organic farming
ProCROSS Healthy organic dairy herd

Never miss a good story - sign up for our newsletter!