One of the great benefits of raising your own livestock is control over what the animals are given and how they are raised. There has been a flurry of new interest in meat and other animal products raised as “organic” and “free range.” The consumer demand for products raised in a more natural environment, without the use of chemicals, hormones, or other feed additives, has been in part driven by the high visibility stories and studies indicating possible links between industry practices and health concerns. One cannot help but be astounded by some of the acceptable practices in the livestock industry: feeding plastic pellets for roughage, antibiotics and hormones to promote growth, even feed products made with manure and other waste products!
It is easy to imagine the ancient farmer struggling with the challenges of livestock care and health of today, but without the benefit of modern drugs and hard-working veterinarians. So natural remedies and treatments have been around for a long time. It is likely, however, they battled fewer issues in the day of the true family farm; the best medicine for vigorous health for livestock is natural, quality feed and forage and sanitary conditions, which were much more a standard method of animal husbandry a hundred to two hundred years ago. Again, the best treatment is prevention and healthy animals!
But sometimes even with the healthiest stock a bit of husbandry and treatment is required. Luckily, many common mild-to-moderate health challenges offer organic and natural methods of treatment. Some have been in use since man first started penning up wild goats, while others are more modern and the result of savvy animal care product companies who have recognized the desire of many stockmen to restrict the chemical intake of their animals. This is just an overview of some common ailments and treatments. Always do your due diligence in researching treatments and remember that what is beneficial to one species may be harmful to another.
A word of caution: no homemade or organic treatments can take the place of your veterinarian and his or her recommendations in the case of serious, chronic, or life threatening illness in your livestock. Your number one concern is the health and well being of the animals in your care, and in cases of acute illness or injury, it is always best to defer immediately to the professionals. Things like pest control, parasitic elimination, and minor health issues often offer a solution that is available in your kitchen cabinet or in the garden section at your local store. There are also some remedies you can administer in an emergency to buy you time while waiting for the vet to arrive – but again, there is no substitution for professional care if available. And nothing is more critical than daily observation: knowing your animals well and recognizing slight changes in behavior can be a key to early intervention before a problem requires more extensive medical attention.
Poultry keeping has become a popular pastime in recent years as more and more towns and cities lift restrictions on residents keeping laying hens on their small lot or backyard. They are on the low-cost end of livestock spectrum and therefore best benefited by home treatments and care when possible; it is hard to justify an expensive veterinary visit of potentially several hundred dollars when the birds are probably valued at a fraction of that.
Well-fed, well-housed birds rarely experience health issues of any magnitude. Most ailments they suffer from are generally nutritional or parasitic in nature and can be remedied by adjustments in diet, or an improvement in sanitary conditions around the coop.
A bit of oyster shell or eggshells crushed to a powder and added to the feed or offered free choice can help if your hens are laying eggs with thin or fragile shells. This can also help with impacted craw, a problem caused when a bird has too much food product in her crop and can’t pass it. If your bird does develop a mild impaction, a few drops of olive oil or liquid paraffin trickled in the mouth using an eyedropper should provide relief.
Chickens are prone to respiratory issues from both heat and cold, and it can be beneficial to treat a mild case of the sniffles and rasps in your flock with apple cider vinegar in the drinking water, adding approximately 4 to 8 teaspoons per gallon. It offers other benefits as well to the birds’ digestive track and increases general resistance to infection. A dab of peppermint essential oil dabbed on the beak or under the wings (at night the girls tuck their head under their wings) of a raspy bird may clear up mild discomfort.
Probiotics have become the buzzword in health these days, and a flock with a case of diarrhea can often find relief if you add chopped onions, yogurt, or one of the several organic mixtures available at the feed store to their food. A bird with a lackluster appetite can benefit from cayenne pepper sprinkled on the scratch or crumbles; it also has the added appeal of deterring rodents.
Birds naturally control mites by dusting themselves, but if they seem to be having an issue, spraying them well with a mixture of teaspoon of garlic oil and two cups of water can help reduce or eliminate the problem, but they must be soaked to the skin. Garlic oil mixed with Vaseline does a good job when smoothed on the bird’s legs to offer relief from scale mites. Cedar shavings in the nesting boxes are helpful for reducing insect issues. Food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) has gained popularity as a general treatment both externally with dusting and internally to control parasites. It also contains trace minerals. Be aware that there is some controversy with internal use because of the method by which it works. It is believed the tiny shards of sharp fossilized material enters the parasite body and damages it; some argue the introduction of what amounts to tiny, nearly microscopic shards of a glass-like material to an animals’ digestive system could result in other health issues. Others have used it as a treatment for all of their stock for years and swear by it— as do many vets.
Other good treatments for parasitic conditions in your hens are chopped garlic in the water or feed or finely chopped pumpkin seeds. If you’ve got the option available to you, planting your hen yard or pasture with certain plants can be highly beneficial. Sage, dandelion, citronella, wormwood, and peppermint are all health-promoting plants that can help sustain your birds’ health as well as provide some nice scents and reduce fly issues. For other issues, a dab of honey can help heal a small cut or injury on your bird but may attract insects. Sugar sprinkled on an infected wound can often help draw out infection.
Goats tend to be a little more problematic; however, remember again that good feeding and care can make all the difference in the world in the incidents of illness in your animals. Goats can go downhill quickly, so in the case of acute injury or severe illness, a call the vet is always warranted. As a species, they are not very stoic and as a rule tend to melodrama: a foot trimming, restraint, or a horn caught in a fence can trigger a staggering volume of noise that leaves you with ringing ears and the impression some horrible maiming is taking place instead of a simple painless treatment! That is not to say a screaming goat need not raise concern, but be aware of the unusually quiet, internally focused goat with little interest in their surroundings.
Goats, as ruminants, have somewhat complicated digestive systems compared to other animals and are perhaps more heavily reliant on excellent forage and nutrition to remain healthy. One of the most traumatic conditions a goat owner can experience with their animals is a vitamin B and/or thiamine deficiency. Paralysis, blindness, and death can appear suddenly with this condition. A bottle of thiamine and B12 as well as the knowledge of the dosage required and how to inject it can be a lifesaver. A better remedy for animals that live in an enclosure is, of course, good prevention with a mineral and vitamin block specifically for goats that includes copper.
Another severe condition is frothy bloat. Normally this is not an issue with a regular diet, but it can be brought on by binge eating or undetected issues with forage. The animal’s gut becomes filled with air bubbles that resist passing with the normal burping reflex of the goat. Administering a drench of one to two cups of vegetable or mineral oil can help alleviate the issue. Severe cases may require a puncture of the stomach wall with a large gauge needle or insertion of tubing with a mixture of Tide laundry detergent powder and water (1 teaspoon mixed with 60ccs of water). These procedures should only be undertaken by a more experienced stockman or vet, as an improperly inserted needle or tube into a lung instead of stomach will have disastrous results! Getting an animal to its feet for a vigorous walk, or rolling a downed animal gently across your lap can help as well. In either of these conditions (deficiency or bloat), a caution call to your vet, even if your animal finds relief, is always a good idea.
Goats can also enjoy benefits from adding cider vinegar to the water to help prevent or treat mild urinary issues; although as a caution, add it slowly and ensure your goats are still drinking enough, as their sense of taste is more developed than your yard birds! Internal parasites can be treated with some of the same treatments used on the chickens— a mild treatment for young goats and does in kid is a parsley and garlic mixture in the feed. Neem oil can be added “out of season” with other herbs as an effective method of parasite control, but not on animals being used for breeding, particularly in billies, as it can lower sperm volume and quality. Some other slightly stronger herbs include wormwood and black walnut (but do not use it around horses, as it can cause founder). A nice basic mix for worm control is a cup of chopped thyme, a cup of chopped wormwood, a cup of sage, a quarter cup of cloves, and a cup of DE (see above) combined and sprinkled over the animals feed.
Mild pink eye or irritation can be treated with a gentle wash of weak port wine and water. Goat lice and flies can be treated by mixing a few drops of garlic oil and vinegar in water and giving the goats coat a good scrub. A dusting of DE can also be helpful Ringworm can be treated likewise, but stubborn cases might require a bit of athlete’s foot spray sparingly applied out of self-groom range.
Cows are an even larger investment, both in funds as well time with handling and training (in the case of the family milker), so a call to the vet when in doubt is always recommended, as is being willing to shift to non-organic methods if the need arises. You may also find vets that will treat cattle are becoming less and less common in your area, particularly for small holders, so it may be important for you to learn some of the more invasive emergency treatments from an experienced cow hand for things like bloat. You should also know how to inject magnesium and calcium in a cow suffering from the rapidly fatal condition of milk fever and be comfortable injecting the medication in each shoulder and side of its rump if you do not have a vet readily available.
Be aware that a cow is by instinct programmed to “hide” illness, a throwback to the days when predators selected herd members who appeared injured or ill – watch your bovines like the proverbial hawk for early indications of problems.
The first step is getting your cattle accustomed to handling, even if that’s only being familiar with a head catch or shoot! Like goats, cattle are ruminants and can also suffer bloat. The methods of treatment listed above for goats can be used with cows as well but with the increased dosage of a quart of cooking oil and vigorous walking afterwards. Diatomaceous earth has become very popular for treating internal parasites in bovines; as it can be put in the feed, it is easy to administer to even the most skittery cow.
Mastitis, an infected teat, can be treated by administering vitamin C and dolomite twice a day, adding a tablespoon of each dressing to their feed. Foot rot can be prevented in most cases by a lick available with copper and trying to maintain dry, sanitary living conditions. But if you have a case develop, it can be treated by soaking the foot in a mixture of two pounds of copper sulfate, two gallons of water, and two pints of vinegar. In addition, you can add a teaspoon of copper sulfate in the evening feed. Mild cases of pink eye (very mild) can often be treated with a spray bottle filled with a pint of water, a tablespoon of vinegar, and two tablespoons of port wine, sprayed in the eyes twice daily. Please note it is a bacterial infection and easily spreads from cow to cow by flies and contact, so do not tarry too long with a natural treatment if you have several cows and do not see quick results.
Healthy hives, like healthy animals, seem to do a good job of resisting the weakness caused by varroa mites, foulbrood, or hive beetle or wax moth infestations. With the mystery of hive collapse, the keeper now more than ever should keep a close eye on their hives and the general health of the population. Avoiding overharvest is also of benefit; while you can feed your bees off season with either bee candy or sugar water, it is much more desirable to leave enough honey on the hives for them to overwinter and emerge robust in the spring.
Bees will abandon supers overrun with wax moths, so it is a good practice each time you extract to package up the wax frames in oversized bags and put them in your freezer at least overnight, as this kills both the moths and the eggs they lay as well as any mites. Removing a frame and inserting an “oil well” available at most bee supply companies can help control and kill hive beetles. You can install a mesh screen in your hives on your bottom board and then underneath place a homemade “sticky board” of cardboard sprayed with cooking oil to collect mites as the bees enter and leave the hive. A combination of the sticky board and dusting the bees with powdered sugar is a highly effective method to rid them of mites but as one can imagine, something of a challenge! You will need to suit up, smoke and open the hive, and gently remove the top supers. Using a one-hand-operated sifter, dust each frame and super, replace the upper super, and repeat. Leave the sticky board in the hive for 48 hours; the bees will groom off the mites (which cannot stay attached to the sugar-coated bees), and the mites will drop to the board below. Winter treatment for respiratory mites can be as simple as laying a paper coffee filter on the top of frames beneath the inner cover and filling them with two tablespoons of menthol tablets; be sure to do it early enough in the year, as hives opened in bitter cold will likely suffer considerable loss.
For foulbrood, there is no reliable organic method to control it once you have a case, though some keepers have tried essential oils with limited success; the best course of action is to keep a close eye on your hives, and if it develops, remove the infected frames quickly and burn them.
If you have chickens, they can aid in your hive health. Your young pullets will be fairly immune to bee stings; if you can house a few in your bee yard, they can help control moths and hive beetles. Just remove them as they get large enough to fly on top of or bump hives, and be sure they can exit the area if they need to.
All organic approaches to livestock treatment must be a balance; your desire for organic eggs should not cause hesitation to treat with antibiotics if your flock develops extensive respiratory illness – as treating a hive case of foulbrood with antibiotics and not harvesting is a far better option than losing the hive! Observation might be the most effective tool in your natural livestock medicine tool belt; early detection can keep a small issue from becoming a full-blown crisis.