Animal health & welfare

Lower use of  antibiotics through better animal health and welfare 

In organic and low-input systems animals should be allowed to meet their natural needs and perform their natural behaviour. At the same time, working with low-input farming also means working with low-input of antibiotics.

However, the use of antibiotics should not be reduced in order to avoid medication  of sick animals but as result of high standards of animal health and welfare.

When health becomes an underlying principle for the entire farm, from soil to plants, animals to the humans and the wider ecosystem, it is so much more than just ‘freedom of diseases’.

Read more in SOLID Technical Notes: 

Herbs in a pasture field. Photo: Karen Søegaard.

Within the SOLID project animal scientists and farmers have worked together on a number of case studies with different approaches.  A total of 18 smaller projects were conducted all aiming at improving health and welfare of the cow herds.

SOLID case studies –  a selection 

  • Feeding with herbs for health promotion
  • Working together in Farmer Field Labs exchanging experience
  • Using mint oil cream to prevent mastitis

Herbs in grass have potential animal health and welfare benefits

Cows eating herb-hay

Ruminants like herbs and favour them when they have a choice, and some of the SOLID case farms tested herbs in pastures because the herbs can have a positive health effects.  Herbs could also have a positive influence on milk quality and yield and offer the cows a variety of different tastes,  micro minerals and other substances. In addition the herbs can improve the biodiversity of the grass fields.

Seven case farms with herbs in the pastures participated in SOLID. Almost all of them used herbs in all grass fields for grazing as well as for silage.

Although it is very difficult to prove health benefits caused by herbs on a scientific basis, SOLID farmers who tested herb-grass, continued with this practice after the experiment – because the cows liked it.

The farmers´ advice regarding herbs: 

  • Sow herbs in stripes – e.g. 30 cm  every four meter or as broad stribes at the edge of the field
  • Increase the amount of herb seeds per hectare
  • Use herbs which grow naturally on your farm
  • Use the herb-grass for silage rather than for hay

All farmers reported that the cows were happy to eat both fresh herbs when grazing  and silage made from herb-grass fields. Some farmers had the impression that especially in the springtime, their cows preferred herbs and leaves from bushes and trees in hedgerows before grass.

Read more about Agroforestry

Calfs on a natural pasture
Calfs on a natural pasture

Reducing the use of antibiotics by learning in Farmer Field Labs

As part of the SOLID project the Organic Research Centre in UK conducted a study with the aim of helping farmers to reduce the use of antibiotics through improving their on-farm practices.

The study was initiated as a discussion group with a number of farmers who were keen to improve the health of their dairy herd. The group met eight times in a Farmer Field Lab, and four of the farmers conducted a trial.

Generally speaking, antibiotics are primarily used in dairy herds as treatment of mastitis. However, both the SOLID experience and other trails have demonstrated that improved management can reduce the antibiotic-use.

Farmers who participated in the SOLID Farmer Field Labs told that they prior to the group discussions considered their farm management to be quite good. Despite this, they all benefited from coming together discussing various methods of health improvement and management used by other farmers.

The general experience from the group meetings is that there is a great power and an important pool of knowledge in farmer groups.

Farmers´ advice about Farmer Field Labs:

  • Be clear about the purpose and goal of the group
  • All group members should participate on equal level
  • Every member should take ownership to the process
  • The exchange of experience should be for mutual benefit
  • The starting point of all discussions should be the practical conditions and goals of the group members
  • Make clear appointments

Mint oil cream can reduce mastitis and the use of antibiotics

Milking at Dyrvig, organic farm in Denmark. Photo: Gustav Bech

To mitigate the use of antibiotics as mastitis treatment many dairy farmers use a special liniment commercial cream containing 35% of mint oil.  The cream is used for massage. It can soften swollen and inflamed udders, and it can prevent oedemas.

Mint oil is known to improve blood flow by dilation of the capillaries and it is likely that application of the mint oil cream can enhance the transportation of white blood cells to the udder and thereby prevent mastitis.

Four farmers within the SOLID project took part in participatory research testing the effect of a commercial liniment cream containing 35% mint oil on Somatic Cells Counts (SCC) in the milk.

Every second newly-calved cow  in their herds was treated for four days with the  mint oil cream. The udders were massaged for a minimum of 2 minutes with 5 ml of the cream in the morning before milking.

SCC data from National Milk Records were then compared to data from untreated cows. The results show that on average, SCC in the untreated cows remained relatively constant and above the critical threshold of 200,000, whereas the SCC of the cows treated with the cream was in general lower.

So, this study showed that liniment mint oil cream treatment of the newly calved-cows can be contribute to reducing mastitis as indicated by its effect on cows’ SCC.


Figur SCC Solid
Figure 1. Average SCC in each recording month combined across the participating farms [panel (a)] and average SCC combined over the recording periods and over farms [panel (b)] (in each panel, means marked with * indicate statistical differences).

How to improve sustainable organic and low-input dairying