Lower stocking rates and healthy herds are associated with organic farms, according to Tralee-based Veterinary Surgeon and Organic Farmer Paddy Fenton.

Fenton said that farmers entering into organic beef production for the first time must be aware that managing herd health is a key requirement of the organic certification process.

Fenton outlined the key requirements and differences between organic and convention farming, in terms of herd health, at a recent organic farm walk in Co. Tipperary.

Medicines in organic farming

One of the key differences between conventional and organic beef production is the use of medicines such as antibiotics, he said.

Fenton said organic farmers need to place more of an emphasis on protecting their animals from disease and parasites through management practices, rather than relying on over-the-counter products or medicines.

Speaking to a crowd of over 200 people, Fenton said that one of the common misconceptions about organic farming is that medicines cannot be used. However, he said this is not the case.

"Medicine can be used on organic farms, as long as it has been certified by a vet and there is proof that it is needed to treat sick animals," he said.

But, he said that the use of medicines is usually the last resort and farmers should have tried preventative husbandry and management practices first.

The use of antibiotics is also limited in beef production, he said.

"It is restricted to clinical cases where no other remedy would be effective or after a major trauma as a result of surgery or an accident," he said.

Number of antibiotic treatments permitted:

  • Animals for meat consumption: One course allowed within a 12 month period
  • Animals for breeding: Two courses allowed within a 12 month period
  • Dairy mastitis: Two courses allowed within a 12 month period


Controlling parasites in organic farming

Farmers should aim to reduce the parasite burden or their animals through good management, which includes the use of a leader-follower system and alternating the fields where silage is cut, he said.

By grazing young stock ahead of older stock, the parasitic burden of the younger animals or the "leaders" is greatly reduced.

Organic farmers should also alternate the fields in which they cut silage as often as possible, as this will reduce the number of parasite eggs the animals come in contact with during grazing, he said.

But, he said the use of certain parasite treatments is permitted if the techniques put in place to reduce the level of infection fail.

In the case of the clean grazing system, if it breaks down and individual animals become infected then it is permitted to use certain wormers to treat individual animals.

"If a significant number of animals require treatment, the use of wormers on a whole-herd basis may be allowed, but you will be required to get veterinary advice and evidence to support the treatment," he said.

Organic vaccination programmes

Vaccination is also permitted in organic farming systems, he said but only in cases where there is a known disease risk on the farm or on a neighbouring farm, which cannot be controlled by other means.

"A vaccination programme should be developed as part of the animal health plan," he said.

He also said that single vaccines are preferred by the certification bodies unless multiple problems exist on a farm.

Withdrawal periods in organic farming

The Veterinary Surgeon also said that the withdrawal periods for medicines used in organic farming systems are longer, to ensure that the meat produced is totally clear of residues.

He said that organic beef farmers must wait triple the withdrawal period length before slaughtering animals that have been administered a product with an 18 days or less withdrawal period.

He also said organic farmers must wait twice the length of time that conventional farmers would before slaughtering an animal when the withdrawal period is between 18-59 days.


Organic herd health plan

Herd health is very important in organic farming and this plan should be followed to reduce the number of animals that require treatment on farm, Fenton said.

Steps to developing an animal health plan:

  1. The plan should be drawn up in conjunction with a vet
  2. Identify the disease problems on the farm
  3. Learn about the disease's/organism's live cycle
  4. Identify the current veterinary or other treatments used
  5. Think about the management cycles that can break the organism's lifecycle
  6. Identify alternative veterinary medicines that be used should the management practices not be successful
  7. Identify the specified withdrawal periods for the treatments
  8. Calculate the longer withdrawal periods required for the organic market