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Better Genes, Not Pills, for Healthier Animals

By Don Comis
February 22, 2002

Nick Maravell takes the same view toward his certified organic beef herd as he does his land: a long-term one. He wants the best-of-the-best Angus, with such good genes that they aren’t likely to require medicines for parasites or diseases.

Rather than rely on medicines, he wants to carefully select his herd, starting with stock from Maryland-based Wye Institute’s Angus herd, bred since 1954. For even better stock in the future, he joined a team of farmer/research partners helping Louis C. Gasbarre, a microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., to develop a gene test to detect cows predisposed to attract parasites.

Gasbarre discovered that certain animals carry parasites. If you could detect these animals early on, as calves, you could remove them and not need parasiticides for the rest of the herd. Or you could breed to eliminate the carriers.

Maravell’s herd is fairly new, but so far he hasn’t needed to treat for parasites. He keeps a small herd on his 165-acre organic farm to prevent a high parasite buildup in his permanent pastures. As the herd grows, he plans to expand his fencing to other organic fields--hay, edible soybeans, corn, barley, rye or hairy vetch--so cattle can forage after harvest or graze cover crops in early spring and late fall.

Maravell doesn’t use any commercial fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, parasiticides, antibiotics or growth hormones. The only exception he has had to make so far was to give an antibiotic to a cow to treat a pinkeye infection, and he will only use that heifer for breeding, not for organic meat.

This coming fall, Maravell will market his beef under the “Nick’s Organic Frozen Beef” label. He will sell individual cattle to customers and then have each cow butchered, packaged and frozen for the customer.

More information on the ARS organic farming research on Maravell’s farm can be found in the February 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, online.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.