In the year before I began veterinary school, I took a position as an animal husbandry intern on an organic dairy farm in the Northeastern United States. Having just graduated from a very liberal and activism-oriented university, my passion for farm animals and food production systems abounded, but I had little livestock experience. I looked for a farm to work on, and imagined that I would be happiest and struggle with the least amount of moral ambiguity on one that practiced the organic regulations I had formerly revered as a consumer. In the community I came from, organic food held a sort of mysticism; it implied a greater connection between the food and the earth, the farmer and his animals, imbuing food not just with greater nutritional value than its factory farmed alternatives, but with more spirituality.

In the organic infrastructure, there is assumed to be a respect for the animals that has been lost in modern husbandry practices, one in which we don’t inflict upon the animals medical treatments that serve only to increase their value to us as units of food production. It brings agriculture back to its roots before antimicrobials. It implies deference for the ancient contract of animal domestication whereby we protect and provide for our animals to the best of our ability throughout their lives, in exchange for their fiber, milk, and eventually, their flesh, after a humane and swift death. In this contract, we are the animals’ guardians, not their exploiters. The purity of this notion is beautiful, and it’s what drew me to this farm.

The farm was moderately sized, with about 300 head of cattle and a small herd of assorted other animals. As suppliers of milk to a well-known organic dairy company, they were United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic dairy producers, which is an extensive and cumbersome certification to maintain, especially for this small, family-owned operation. The other animals they kept—sheep, llamas, goats, pigs, chickens, horses—were, therefore, raised organically without USDA certification. For three months, I lived with the family, feeding the animals and milking cows.

In the first couple of months, there were a number of incidents where animals I suspected of having bacterial or parasitic infections were left untreated. When a few of the goats were thin and dehydrated, we covered them with and fed them diatomaceous earth, a home remedy that can kill some environmental parasites but is questionably effective for internal ones. A few of the small herd died, fairly emaciated and anemic, and I now believe heavy parasitism was the most likely cause.


A young ram lay nearly unmoving in a hay pile for a few days. No attempt was made at diagnostic procedures; regardless of their results, his condition would be untreatable. It was hoped he would recover on his own, and while he did after some extremely distressing days, I questioned at what cost of the animal’s suffering.

I was also sent to a store nearby to pick up teat dilators. While mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands very common in milking animals, is usually treated with an infusion of antibiotics into the teat, this therapy is forbidden on an organic farm, and teat dilators are used instead. Dilators are soft cones that are inserted into the teat to open it so the infection can be cleaned, usually flushed with water and hydrogen peroxide. I have since learned in veterinary school that the force of the dilator’s insertion damages the integrity of the sphincter that serves to keep the teat shut, leaving the animal highly susceptible to reinfection. Cows with recurrent mastitis are shipped to slaughter.

Despite the moral disquiet of this work, I felt I was learning the hard lessons of organic agriculture; at least these animals were not being pumped full of antibiotics so they would produce more milk or grow to slaughter size faster. This alternative was certainly preferable.

Then, one morning, I walked down to the calving barn because I’d heard an animal was in distress. While a mother had gone through all the motions of labor, the calf was nowhere in sight. The farmer was already in the midst of an intense physical struggle to rotate the cow’s uterus; it had contorted, and the calf was trapped in the birthing canal. When the veterinarian arrived, many exhausting hours were spent trying to release the calf, which we quickly realized was already dead. I stood near the cow’s head and kept her still through her discomfort, and from this position I heard the vet explain to the farmer that the calf would need to be removed through more intensive means, intensive enough to require a shot of antibiotics for the mother.

In a world where over half the population lives in urban areas, the subtleties of animal husbandry are beyond our capacity of understanding.

It would be unethical to continue to introduce more bacteria inside the cow without protecting her. The veterinarian was sent away and the cow was shot.1 I left the farm a week later.

It was only after this experience that I realized the profound misconception upon which organic regulation thrives. At first look, I saw that rather than constructed forwards from a desire to raise animals in a way that ensures them the highest possible quality of life, these policies were developed backwards through an intense fear of antibiotic usage. Then, I realized that despite the real dangers of antibiotic overuse, dangers I plan to spend my career combating, the fear that drives these policies is truly so much deeper than that. At the essence of these policies, we are reacting to a fear of the farmer, of their trustworthiness, their honesty, their character. We are reacting to a fear of the unknown. And, in the throes of this fear, the animal has become incidental.

There are so many reasons why antibiotics may be useful on a farm, most of which are justifiable. In species other than livestock, it is commonly considered to be animal cruelty when an animal is denied adequate veterinary care, which includes the appropriate administration of antibiotics. But in a world where over half the population lives in urban areas, the subtleties of animal husbandry are beyond our capacity of understanding. We accuse the farmer of greed, filling their healthy animals with antibiotics to exploit them for profit and putting public health at risk in return. The frequently ignored opposite side of this coin is the amount of meat we demand from these producers at low cost, such that profit margins on animals are counted in cents. The farmer I worked with cared deeply for his animals but truly could not afford to endanger his organic certification for this cow. Rather than empower him and his veterinarian to make the best decisions for this individual animal together, we trapped them in a regulatory cul-de-sac from which the animal’s death was the only escape.

Our food system has co-evolved with a dearth of regulation, which has allowed non-organic farmers to buy many classes of antibiotics without veterinary approval or counsel, and treat animals at their own discretion. Just as the average person is not deemed educated enough to treat themselves for presumed infectious diseases, there is no reason why farmers alone should have this power, other than to make farming cheaper for them, and in turn, make meat and milk cheaper for us. Currently, the only response to this regulatory void we have invented is organic practices, which say nothing for what care an animal should be afforded, only what care is withheld from it. By supporting organic milk and meat, we support the convenience of banning a practice entirely rather than properly evaluating and implementing it. In this system, we all lose, but none of us more than our animals.

  1. Please note that a shot to the head is a common form of euthanasia in cattle and is considered humane. This death should not be construed as mistreatment of the animal.

Original artwork courtesy of Jill Brandwein. USDA image courtesy of edlabdesigner.