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0607 PD: The evolution of a holistic veterinarian

Richard J. Holliday Published on 06 June 2007

A broad-based interest in soil conservation began in the 1930s as a result of the devastating “Dust Bowl” era when the shortcomings of the then current agricultural practices became apparent. This trend has continued on many fronts, and the most visible one at present is the “organic movement.” It is well to remember “organic” is only one part of a much larger trend toward sustainable agriculture changing the nature of farming in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world as well. My evolution as a holistic veterinarian roughly paralleled this broader national movement.

I have always had a great love for animals. When I was young my father suggested I consider a career in veterinary medicine. I took his advice and in 1959 received my veterinary degree from the University of Missouri. I did not plan to be a holistic veterinarian, but circumstances and providence apparently deemed otherwise. I practiced as a large animal vet for several years before a series of seemingly unrelated events and experiences coupled with the prompting of my “natural farming” friends eventually reached a critical mass and my concept of health and disease took a giant step into holistic thinking. Some of these milestones follow.



In high school, I read Louis Bromfield’s books Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm in which he detailed his success in rebuilding worn-out farms near his boyhood home in Ohio. These books were my earliest exposure to alternative agriculture. They are still a good reference for anyone interested in soil conservation and the early history of at least one part of the natural farming movement.

In undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri, I had the opportunity to study soils under the renowned Dr. William A. Albrecht. It was years later that I fully appreciated the importance of his work, which is that it takes healthy soils to make healthy crops and healthy crops to make healthy animals. His book Soil Fertility and Animal Health is a classic. Albrecht’s influence and acceptance in the realm of sustainable or biological agriculture is greater now than while he was alive. One of his sayings was, “Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books.” I have tried to follow this advice throughout my career. It has paid huge dividends in insights and knowledge gained.

In vet school, I was fortunate that most of my clinical instructors were former veterinary practitioners. They gave us a practicality in our approach to medicine that has kept my mind open to anything that worked. One of our large animal instructors was almost 80 years old when I was in vet school. His inquisitive mind was an inspiration to all students.

He would try any sort of treatment at least once in order to judge its worth. The results of some of these unorthodox remedies and therapies were at times astounding. He taught us to not be bound by tradition and not be afraid to try something new or to explore a new idea.

One day one of my good “natural farming” clients took me on an impromptu field trip. We drove to an area where his cornfield joined his neighbor’s. Both fields were basically the same as to soil type, variety and stage of growth. His neighbor’s corn was tall with dark green, undamaged leaves. Kenny’s corn was just about as tall and green, but the plants in several rows around the perimeter of his field were severely damaged. He explained. “My neighbor uses all the modern chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. I use only naturally occurring soil amendments like manure, lime, gypsum and rock phosphate. Deer will walk through miles of ‘chemical’ corn without taking a bite and then feast on my crops because it tastes better.” We did a taste test. The sap from his corn tasted sweet almost like sugar cane. One row away, just across the fence, the sap was bland and had a bitter aftertaste. He then suggested I notice the number of empty pesticide cans in the trash dumps on the farms where I made most of my sick animal vet calls and look for a correlation. There definitely was. I have never forgotten his words, and I have seldom found them in error. He taught me two natural principles:


•Animals can recognize and will seek out healthy nutrition, if available.

•There is an adverse relationship between heavy use of ag chemicals and animal health.

1940 saw the publication of An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, an English researcher working in India to develop composting methods to increase soil fertility. He found animals were healthier when fed highly nutritious feed grown on high organic matter soils. He reported his oxen fed on these “organically grown” feeds remained healthy even when directly exposed to foot-and-mouth disease.

Sir Albert’s book is reputed to have been the impetus for J. I. Rodale to begin publication of the magazine Organic Gardening and Farming. This magazine was instrumental in popularizing the health benefits of organic farming for animals and humans alike. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was our program guide as we tried to farm our small acreage organically and apply natural principles to our own health and that of our animals. It also inspired me to become more holistic in my vet practice.

Acres USA is another national publication that has been a tremendous advocate for ecological agriculture for over 30 years. The publisher, Charles Walters, is a pioneer in this field and has written extensively on this subject.

In 1984, I became employed as a technical services veterinarian for a company that produces and markets colostrum-whey based animal health and nutrition products. For the last 23 years, I’ve been able to apply holistic principles to various health problems as I consulted with large and small, organic and conventional dairymen across the country. In 1988, I witnessed the birth of the CROPP Cooperative, and I have been peripherally associated with Organic Valley ever since. In 1989, I took advanced training from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and became board certified in veterinary acupuncture. The study of 5,000-year-old holistic medical technology added a whole new dimension to my understanding of health and disease.


When the Rodales first popularized the term “organic,” it referred to the goal of building fertile, biologically active soils high in organic matter. At present, the emphasis of organic regulation seems to have shifted somewhat from soil building to restricting the use of prohibited substances. The USDA defines the requirements to qualify as organic and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) ensures compliance with some of the more important natural principles. It is interesting to note that while organic certified dairies are regulated by the government, all dairies are subject to the constraints imposed by natural principles and the innate nature of the cow.

I have been privileged to watch and participate in the growth of sustainable or organic agriculture over several decades. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds in the future. PD