Across the farming industry agro-chemicals have boosted production in recent decades, but at a serious cost to wildlife and society. Organic farming isn’t just about avoiding these chemicals. It’s about understanding the natural processes that drive food production and trying to work with them, rather than against them. Farming in this way is not easy, but once learned it is not forgotten and has far fewer negative repercussions.
The conventional approach to pathogenic bacteria has been to kill all bacteria, even though it has long been known that nature abhors a vacuum and will rapidly re-colonise that space. This conventional approach has three major flaws.
Firstly, 99% of the bacteria in a colony are benign or beneficial and are actually competing with and controlling the spread of pathogens.
Secondly, recent studies have shown that even with the most thorough sterilisation, there will likely be a bio-film of dormant bacterial spores left on surfaces, from which emerge new viable bacteria into an environment free from competitors.
Lastly, those bacteria emerging from the bio-film have been shown to sometimes mutate to better resist future attempts at their eradication. Anti-microbial resistance being a case in point.
We are trialling a different approach to the control of pathogens in our indoor environments. With indoor wintering of cattle, there is a build-up of all bacteria in this artificial environment, pathogens included. Adult cattle are relatively tolerant of these pathogens. However, their immune defence mechanisms are constantly being challenged which requires energy, reducing their ability to be as productive and react effectively in the case of an acute pathogenic attack (eg. mastitis).
With young animals, however, their defence systems are less developed and they are more likely to succumb to pathogenic attacks or secondary viral attacks. (Stress also plays a major, though largely unquantified, part in these processes and that is something we are also addressing.)
The system we are trialling fits well with the ecological ethos of working with nature. It is known as environmental microbial inoculation. It is not a new concept, but very recent advances in DNA profiling have enabled researchers to better understand the workings of microbial populations.
Basically, what we are doing is taking a known pro-biotic mix of benign soil microbes, known as endophytes, and flooding the environment of our housed animals with these. Over a relatively short period of time - a couple of weeks or so - these endophytes build up in the environment and water and out-compete the resident pathogens. Ideally, one day, we will be using our own soil endophytes, but until that time this is our best option.
This approach is now being used by pig and poultry producers to replace the use of in-feed/water anti-biotics. We have been told this approach is also being used in hospitals in Canada where MRSA and C-Difficile have become endemic.
We've been inoculating our cow barn and water supply and so far this winter has seen a marked improvement in animal health. Apart from two cases of calf pneumonia very early on, we have only needed to treat one calf (against 14 last year). We have had no cases of calf scour (diarrhoea) requiring treatment (though this is possibly more to do with our colostrum protocols). We have had only one case of mastitis in the milking cows (though usually we might get between 4 and 5 in this period) and no cases of foul-of-the-foot (usually 4 or 5).
Another observation. We are inoculating the farm animals' water supply daily. We clean out their water troughs before they come inside in late October/early November. Before Christmas these need cleaning out again with the build-up of organic debris from the cows mouths - it's fascinating to watch the cows flushing their mouths out with water after a meal turning the water black. This winter, as I write, the troughs are crystal clear. It’s a very noticeable difference.
For those readers concerned about the unseen effects of these new bacteria on our cows, we trialled the system first with a human. Our master cheese-maker, Steve, has suffered with blocked sinuses for decades and has tried everything, even acupuncture and hypnosis. Nothing has worked. The guy who was promoting this system to us had suffered the same complaint but had treated it with a bacterial inhaler. An inhaler was duly ordered and within a couple of days his sinuses were clear and have remained so since.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, our approach to managing our farm is this: it is natural systems, over billions of years, that got us to this point in time. It has largely been humanity’s belief that we can do it better than nature that has got the planet into the mess it’s currently in.
Over the past twenty years we have found that by following organic and ecological farming principles, we can produce almost as much food as we did when we were non-organic, but without putting all that big pharma crap into our soils, our crops, our animals and our environment.
By studying and better understanding nature, and using that knowledge to harness natural processes, we believe we are creating a healthier, more natural environment for our animals.