DES MOINES, Iowa -- The lack of chemicals used in organic production has created a challenge for farmers in caring for their animals: Few veterinarians are trained to treat livestock without antibiotics or other modern drugs.
The shortage of veterinarians trained in organic practices has become more noticeable as the industry has boomed.
There were about 3,350 organic livestock farms in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which counted segments of the organic industry for the first time that year and plans another count this year. The U.S. had 14,540 organic farms of all kinds in 2007, up more than 20 percent from 2002.
While no one tracks the number of veterinarians who treat organic livestock, experts agree it's a relatively small number nationwide. That's partly because organic agriculture, despite its growth, still accounts for relatively few farms.
"Unless you live in certain parts of the country, it is very much a niche market," said Gatz Riddell, a veterinarian and executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners based in Auburn, Ala. "Only a minority of members have the mindset to work with organic producers because the vast majority is conventional production."
Riddell, whose group is comprised of veterinarians who specialize in treating cattle, said most vets probably encounter only one or two organic farms and "it's asking a lot of them to know actually two different ways of treating something."
It's also difficult to get subjects added to "already overflowing" veterinary curriculums, Riddell said. Iowa State University and some other schools now offer courses on alternative therapies, but the focus tends to be more on herbal and Chinese therapies, not necessarily organics, said Jim McKean, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University.
Mike Chaddock, deputy director of the Association of American Veterinary Colleges, said it's unlikely schools would offer a course just about organic treatments. Most veterinary schools in the U.S have a "one-health" curriculum in which students are taught "how their decisions affect the health of the animal, the health of human beings as recipients of food produced by the animal .... and impact nature and the environment."
There's also an issue of money. Few veterinarians focus on organic medicine because it's seen as difficult area for earning a living, McKean said.
"Organic producers talk to each other about things they have had success with and they develop a community of users that may or may not include veterinarians," he said.
Tony Azevedo, 60, who has about 800 dairy cows near Stevinson, Calif., said while it would be nice to have more veterinarians who practice organic medicine, there's less demand for their services because animals raised organically tend to be healthier.
"You have to understand, once you put animals back in their natural state or pasturing, you've eliminated 98 percent of ailments conventional farmers have," Azevedo said.
One example he cited is a displaced abdomen, which Azevedo said results from being overfed. Organic animals tend to eat less than those raised conventionally, he said.
Animals raised outside also have fewer stress-related ailments than those kept on concrete or hooked up to machines, he said.
But McKean said organic practices have their own health risks. For example, animals kept in a pasture are more likely to encounter disease-carrying wildlife and can be more at risk for parasitic diseases, such as trichinosis or toxoplasma, he said.
"Both of those have largely been removed by moving swine indoors into confinement operations," McKean said.
He also criticized what he described as reluctance among organic farmers to seek medical treatment.
Organic regulations bar farmers from withholding antibiotics from sick animals just to retain their organic certification. But once animals receive antibiotics or hormones, they must be removed from the organic herd. Meat from a cow, for example, could then be sold as conventional beef, but at a much lower price.
"One of my issues with the organic livestock movement is that because of the increased value of the organic animal versus those that have been treated for diseases, is they put off treatment of diseases for an extended period of time," McKean said, adding that he believes the delay can cause unnecessary suffering.
Pennsylvania veterinarian Hubert Karreman, who mainly treats organic dairy cows, said when he began looking for ways to help them without antibiotics, he found many answers in veterinary textbooks used before the advent of antibiotics, which were first prescribed in the 1930s.
"What they were using back there were biologics and botanicals," he said. Biologics are made from human and animal proteins and designed to treat and prevent diseases like arthritis and psoriasis, among others. Botanical treatments are made from plants.
"I just think veterinarians aren't aware of some of the alternatives out there," Karreman said.
But he also agreed with Azevedo that organic farms tend to need fewer vet services.
"Calves that are on nursed cows, running with their moms, they are the picture of health compared to calves being fed bottles of milk replacer and on an accelerated weaning process," Karreman said.