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Alternative medicine options for common ailments in cows

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 February 2020

Most people don’t see the doctor or get a prescription for every scratch, sniffle or headache. Many people routinely take vitamins, probiotics, herbal remedies or over-the-counter medications to prevent or combat illness.

Likewise, your cows don’t necessarily need conventional medications when confronted with health issues, and providing treatments that are complementary or alternative options for conventional veterinary medicine can promote herd health.

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At the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance Field Days, held last fall, attendees were briefed on a variety of cow health treatments, as well as preventative measures to take, to keep their herds healthy. Complementary and alternative veterinary medicines (CAVM) are used alongside or instead of conventional medicine to prevent or to treat health concerns.

Homeopathy

Jacki Martinez Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, often relies on the wisdom of her mother, a large animal homeopathic veterinarian, to help dairy farmers keep their cows healthy and treat common health and wellness issues. Perkins encourages all dairy farmers to have a first aid kit for cows.

“When you don’t have something set up,” she said of the emergency cow-care kit, “is where things go wrong.”

The kit should include thermometers and tube feeders, diapers to sop up blood, a high-powered flashlight, electrolytes, towels, saline solution to flush wounds and an antiseptic for cleaning wounds. A second kit, containing remedies for common cow health concerns, is also essential.

Beer is known to settle a cow’s stomach and is useful when a cow is not down but is off feed. Arnica, an herb, is used for bruises and bleeding. Bach Original Flower Remedies, which are used in humans, include Rescue Remedy, which is handy for stressed and panicked animals and provides an immediate calming response. The active ingredients are simply flowers: cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose and star of Bethlehem.

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Homeopathy treatments won’t hurt the animal, Perkins emphasized. Selecting the needed remedy requires symptom and location assessment, as well as an overall view of the animal’s health. If you use the wrong remedy, new symptoms will emerge to guide you in the correct direction, and you simply change course.

Organic preventative care and treatments

Dairy farmer Kathy Arnold, of Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, New York, has been using organic treatments on her cows since 1997. Today, these options are much more readily available off the shelf, no longer requiring producers to make their own.

While there are some illnesses that are difficult to treat successfully without antibiotics, these same illnesses are preventable, Arnold said. Calf diarrhea and pneumonia are not easy to treat. But by preventing scours, which decreases the calf’s immunity, they are preventable. Vaccinating dry cows against scours, along with adequate, high-quality colostrum for calves, are of primary importance in preventing disease.

Organic calf-care products containing probiotics, yeast, minerals and vitamins help boost immune system functioning when given immediately after birth and for the next two weeks, Arnold said. These are the first defense for healthy calves. If scours were to occur, adding organic treatments that coat the intestine to prevent dehydration are imperative to reduce the severity of the illness.

“Maybe we’re overdoing it, but I like the fact that nobody is getting sick,” Arnold said of her preventative protocol. “It all fits together in terms of having very good luck with calf health.”

When faced with retained placenta concerns, Arnold uses a fresh cow bolus consisting of bicarbonate, aloe vera and garlic. This mixture is inserted directly into the cervix, twice, post-freshening. It flushes out the uterus and releases the retained placenta, she said.

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General steps they take to prevent illness in the herd include cleaning all equipment with hydrogen peroxide or alcohol wipes both before and after use and vaccinating the herd against common diseases. Kelp and iodine in the water keep pinkeye away. And a raw milk and honey treatment applied via syringe is soothing if pinkeye does occur.

Botanicals

For the past 19 years, Liz Bawden has been running Bawden Family Farm, a certified organic dairy located in Hammond, New York. She uses homeopathic remedies, organic treatment products, and makes her own medicinals. While many of the tinctures and salves she uses can be purchased, they are often cost prohibitive. Bawden has spent years experimenting with different formulations to treat a wide variety of common cow health concerns. Much of her experience has been gained by talking to other organic farmers, observing her own results and experimenting to find the best options.

Bawden often uses tinctures, which are made from plant materials seeped in alcohol. The alcohol acts to draw the medicinal elements out of the plant. After sitting for eight weeks, a tincture is diluted 50-50 with water. Bawden uses these medicinal, botanically based tinctures regularly to treat any illnesses that arise in her dairy herd.

Garlic is an immune stimulant that can be used in place of antibiotics, Bawden said. It acts to suppress bacterial, fungal and viral illness. She smashes the clove and creates a tincture, administering it to treat pneumonia and scours in calves.

Echinacea is used to stimulate the immune system to resist infection, while St. John’s wort is anti-inflammatory and relieves pain from wounds, burns and nerve injuries. Calendula is also anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal. It treats skin infections, strains, wounds and internal digestive concerns.

For retained placenta, Bawden uses several tinctures, including Calendula, mixed together and cut with water. If they aren’t diluted enough, they are painful to the cow when administered vaginally, she said. She learned to dilute the treatment through trial and error.

Black walnut husks are used to create a de-wormer for calves. While this is not safe for horses, it will expel worms from calves. Several treatments, once per week, are needed.

There is no one-size-fits-all for mastitis. Mastitis has many causal microorganisms, and successfully treating it depends on using the correct medicinals that work on the microbes present on a given farm. Herbal products applied directly into teat are the best option, Bawden said.

Bawden also uses homemade salves, which are medicinal plants mixed with olive oil. These are put into a jar and covered with waxed paper then allowed to set in the sun for three days to activate the medicinal properties. The oil is then heated gently and mixed with beeswax. Salves can be used as a dressing or poultice to treat wounds, fractures and ulcerations.

Dairy producers can learn to utilize plant-based treatments, immune-supportive preventative approaches and traditional medicine to keep the herd healthy. When antibiotics are used judiciously, and not as a first line of defense, their pathogenic properties remain intact and concerns of microbial resistance are greatly reduced, so they can continue to protect livestock and human health in the future.  end mark

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in any of the alternative medicine strategies described in the article, Progressive Dairy recommends working closely with your herd veterinarian to determine proper use and dosage.

Staff photo

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.

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