It’s the End of the Worm as We Know It*

The English have an adjective to describe someone who is simultaneously stubborn, tenacious and contrary: bloody-minded.  Farming today, in times of agricultural cartels, obstructionist government and monopolized markets requires nothing so much as congenital bloody-mindedness.  I resemble that remark.

Besides being bloody-minded, I am also raising crops and food animals on a 1,000-acre organic farm in Virginia, meaning that I have had to become an “expert” on: local zoning law, national and state inspection criteria, riparian buffers, tall fescue endophyte, optimal location of watering stations, four-season forage mixes, insurance cooperatives, no-till cropping, &c.  Ayrshire Farm is simultaneously Organic, Predator-Friendly, Virginia’s Finest, Certified Humane, and raising rare breeds in partnership with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.  The aforementioned doesn’t begin to address the issues raised by the on-farm meat-processing facilities where we are inspected by the USDA, the Virginia Departments of Health, Consumer Affairs, and Agriculture, Oregon Tilth, the Predator Conservation Alliance and Certified Humane Farm Animal Care.  As one might expect, these various organizations do not necessarily meet regularly with each other to ensure that their requirements are not mutually conflicting, thus making interagency compliance probable.  Or even possible.  And, that’s just the meat-animal part of the farming operations.

 Farming organically requires bloody-mindedness to the degree that we probably need another word.  As if battling the above wasn’t enough, the chemical cartels, when ultimately unable to subvert the organic designation, cleverly and effectively set about making it impossible (or nearly impossible—there’s that bloody-minded thing again) to produce anything organic profitably by convincing the policy-makers to construct rules that are unreasonably stringent.  An obvious example is that we can’t use even therapeutic antibiotics on an organic animal even once in a life-or-death context, though intensively produced food animals and milk only have a 30-day waiting period.  Anyone who works in the biological sciences knows that antibiotics have no long-term effects and that the 30-day period is extremely conservative; the longest half-life of any antibiotic in use today is something less than 12 hours.

On Cargill’s payroll or not, it was clear that my cattle weren’t doing well.  We have good pasture in Virginia with lots of native orchard grass and white clover.  Additionally, at Ayrshire we have overseeded the above with more clover and alfalfa in an attempt to get ahead of the tall fescue which is particularly problematic to the extremely thrifty Scottish Highland cattle, but that’s another story.  My cattle certainly did not look like they had been any where near a Humane Farm Animal Care inspector.  In fact, there were days, standing out looking at my cattle, that I was tempted to report myself.  We were feeding mass quantities of organic hay, baled right on the farm—I had hay analyses that indicated we had good-quality baled forage.  Yet, the cattle were steadily losing more and more condition.

It was clear, after the death of a yearling White Park steer due to the complications of a severe trichostrongylus infestation (a $3,000 retail loss), that my cattle weren’t going to wait for me and the out-field watering systems, the high-tensile fencing, over-seeding, etc.  So, we got out our fecal sample test-kits and collected samples to send in to the state laboratory.  Of 117 animals (approximately one-fourth of our herd) tested for internal parasites (trichostrongylus, nematodiris, trichuris, and/or coccidia were identified in the samples): nine (7%) had heavy infestations (those with moderate or severe worm loads invariably were infested with multiple species of parasite); 28 (24%) had either combination infestations or moderate or heavy single-species infestations, 53 (45%) had light infestations, and only 27 (23%) were clear.  The bottom line?  Three-fourths of my cattle were battling worms, and 41%, nearly half, of those were clearly losing the battle.   [For a good article on ruminant parasite symptomology, see, “A Review: Alternative Methods of Controlling Ruminant Internal Parasites,” University of Aberdeen,, p.4.]

So, besides having to become an expert on  intensive-rotational-sequential multi-species grazing systems, animal identification systems, forage curves, beneficial insects, companion planting, soil amendments, &c., I now faced a new challenge: anthelmintics (de-wormers).  It was clear that the diatomaceous earth that we were religiously feeding was not having any effect, if you define effect as other than feeding worms.  The reason is simple: gastric acids dissolve the silicon in the DE, breaking it down, so there really aren’t millions and million of tiny razor-sharp edges cutting up the worms.  Regrettably, the same process vitiates any effectiveness for metal filings of any sort.  Next?  Here’s where the bloody-minded thing comes in: the Common Wisdom Is That There Is Nothing You Can Do To Control Parasites in Organic Food Animals.  Well, that’s wrong, too.

The Holy Grail here is certainly rotational grazing.  Those who suggest this are absolutely correct; by moving cattle daily, away from their feces and not returning to the same field within 42 days (42 = 2 times 21: see below), it is possible to get and keep cattle essentially free of parasites.  But with 1,000 acres of hills, streams, forests, and no straight lines, it takes a while to get that one up the stairs, especially on a farm formerly known as “derelict” (read that: soil ravaged by centuries of corn and tobacco, and severely infested with tall fescue) in the Virginia foothills.  Conventional wisdom is right on two counts: healthy animals are more likely to throw off a parasitic infestation, and good forage provides sufficient nutrients to sustain the animal and a moderate parasite load.  Aberdeen discusses that close-grazed grass, less than one-inch high, dramatically increases the worm-load as “the majority of worm larvae crawl only one inch from the ground onto plants.”  To add to this, healthy soil is high in earthworms, dung beetles and nematophagous fungi which eat many of the detrimental larvae and eggs.  In addition, sequential grazing of different species (e.g., sheep and cattle) will help as sheep and cattle are susceptible to different parasites.  It should be obvious that, under conventional grazing systems, parasitic infestation rises with stocking rates. Again, the University of Aberdeen seems to be doing the best work in this field; see, p.2.]  See also, McGill University, “The Control of Internal Parasites in Cattle and Sheep”, Jean Duval at]

Next I explored The Herbal Route.  If one surfs and looks for “alternative parasite control,” for example, one finds lots of alternatives.  Unfortunately, very few of these have been tried in any clinical setting, and fewer yet on cattle.  There are literally dozens of natural anthelmintics.  To save you days of re-doing my research, here is my short list of plants which: are generally believed to be antagonistic to common bovine intestinal parasites and are non-toxic to the animal (many anthelmintics listed work because the host animal dies in the process of the treatment); occur repeatedly in the literature; pass a two-second laugh-test by someone with a high school-level knowledge of chemistry and biology; are currently available; and, are currently legal.  In order of probable efficacy and availability these include: mugwort (don’t use wormwood, although both are Artemesias—wormwood is toxic); black walnut hulls (high tannins—the same reason why pomegranate is cited); cucurbit seeds (pumpkin, squash); pine needles (we’ll get back to that one); and salt.  Other putative panaceas include: pepper, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, etc.  The bottom line is that you should probably plant mugwort around the perimeter of your grazing fields.  No time to do that?  Can’t find (cheap) flats of organic mugwort at your neighborhood nursery?  Your cattle have worms now?  Me, too.  No problem, just read on.

Finally, there was the age-old, fall-back question of, “How did people worm their animals (and, come to think of it, themselves) in the days before Monsanto?”  Besides severe bloody-mindedness, I also have Chronic Farming Fetish, one manifestation of which is a propensity to collect old farming books…centuries of them.  Needless to say, there was a wealth of “cures” in any book dealing with animal husbandry.  Again, leaving out the can’t-be-lethal-or-illegal ones (and the ones that nobody knew what it was anymore), only one substance kept recurring: turpentine.  In fact, since “discovering” turpentine as a cure for worms, I have also learned that turpentine was used in the U.S. as an anthelmintic for humans as late as WWII; apparently, the turpentine was put on a sugar cube, just like some vaccines.  It all makes a lot of sense: the conifer tree produces the turpines as a defense against the bugs—there are a lot of coniferous trees, so there must be something to it.  (Here is where the pine needles come in, and go out.)

I digress for a sentence: we had changed organic certification agencies to Oregon Tilth because we felt that OT offered us more in terms of expertise and assistance.  In discussing the “turpentine solution” (pun intended), our farm compliance officer, Mimi Stein, was genuinely thrilled to find that OT approved the use of naturally derived “pine spirits.”  We needed some kind of carrier for the turpentine and settled on organic linseed (flaxseed) oil as everyone who paints knows that the best solvent for (linseed) oil-based paints is turpentine.  (The reason for including the oil in the drench is to provide a buffer in the gut against the turpentine.)  One of my farming books, Animal Management (1908) by The General Staff, War Office, London, (p. 322, if you’d like to check your copy) was thoughtful enough to print a dose for the turpentine: one ounce for a full-grown cow or horse.  The earliest reference I found was from The Complete Farmer (1777, 3rd ed., London for The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce), but various turpine-containing resins have been cited earlier.

Now, the fun begins.  Ever heard the one about how to be a millionaire?  It starts, “First, get a million dollars, then…”  Well, this was starting to look a lot like that old (bad) joke.  However, I am very fortunate to have a good friend who is not only a Ph.D. chemist, but knows every single person in the state of Pennsylvania.  One of the people he knows is Don Williams, the head pharmacist and owner of Professional Compounding Pharmacists of Freeport.  Over the years, Don has graciously gone miles out of his way to help us to compound or procure things on the fringe of the chemical establishment, assist with dosages, research side-effects, etc.  Again, as with the 55-gallon drums of organic, food-grade acetic acid (vinegar–works like a charm on Japanese beetles and milkweed), Don found organically produced turpentine.  Finding organic linseed oil was the easy part.

The drench is the usual method for medicating cattle when using liquid medications.  We went to the local Southern States, bought what they had for cattle drenching and, notwithstanding having to reconstruct the drench throughout the day (see “Constructing a Non-Edible Drench” this publication), Bob’s-your-uncle.  We drenched each full-grown cow with 1 oz. turpentine suspended in 5 oz. linseed oil (a 1:5 ratio), and prorated the dose for smaller cattle. We did not drench any calf less than three months on the advice of our veterinarian.  The turpentine did not seem to bother nursing calves, as in any off-taste to the milk. At the same time, we also took blood from a sample of 13 feeder steers that were low-gaining and looked just generally poor.  Although only two of the thirteen had severe infestations (both had trichostrongylus parasites), six of the thirteen were at least borderline anemic; two were severely anemic.

The results?  Cattle that had severe to moderate infestations of trichostrongylus (threadworms) were, a week later when retested, either down to a light infestation or completely clear.  Cattle with light-to-moderate infestations of nematodes (roundworms) and/or coccidia were clear, even though none of the turpentine references I used mentioned either.  As the longest prepatent stage (period up to the appearance of the first eggs in dung after the host animal is infected) was for the trichostrongylids, three weeks, we still had to re-worm after 21 days.  The results were positive beyond our expectations.  All the animals were clear of worms except for five which had initially had severe and multiple organism infestations; in these five cases, the new results showed only a light infestation of trichostrongylids, a result that we (and they) can live with.

It is worth mentioning again that a substantial number of animals (about 20%) tested as anemic.  When we ran the cattle through for the second drench, we gave all of the cattle an iron injection of 100 mg. elemental iron (iron hydrogenated dextran, 10 cc per adult cow); inject the iron into the neck as it will stain muscle tissue.  The severely anemic cattle were put in a paddock on special high-mineral feed until they had noticeable improved in condition; they were retested for anemia before returning to the rest of the herd.  For the second pass through the drench, we also decided that we would blood-test all of the animals.  Yes, it sounds expensive, but the blood-tests were a lot cheaper than losing even one more animal.  Be sure to order a CBC (Complete Blood Chemistry) and an Inorganic Elemental Analysis on at least some individuals, the latter of which is necessary to see if your cattle have any nutritional deficiencies, as well as testing for anemia.

Most of the alternative-therapy research on ruminate parasites has been done on sheep for several reasons: sheep are generally considered more susceptible to a greater number of parasites than cattle or pigs, and much of the work has been done in England and Scotland which have many more sheep than cattle.  The above-mentioned articles prescribe feeding more nutritious food, especially food that is high in protein and to feed supplemental phosphorus, but I can’t find any references that indicate that this works on cattle; common sense dictates that it can’t hurt.  In addition, there are several pre-mixed, organic homeopathic remedies, such as “Inner Purity”™, but while these contain several ingredients which are known to be somewhat antagonistic to ruminant parasites, none have the annelid-neurotoxic efficacy of turpentine.  And, there are now centuries of experience in cattle with turpentine that shows it to be both safe and efficacious.  As a real plus for us organic types, it is available in natural form, in quantity, and reasonably priced.  Until you can get your cattle and other ruminants moving off grazed pastures daily, natural turpentine mixed with organic flaxseed oil is, in my view, the best bet to bovine health and vigor.

 How to Construct a Non-Edible Drench

It used to be that a livestock drench was made out of metal and looked a lot like a cookie press on steroids. These days, the powers that be have decided that either animals are bred for their affinity to medication or toothless, in addition to being hornless. I’ve obviously missed both these improvements to modern living.

The local livestock supply store cheerfully provided us with the latest in drench technology, a the “Springer-McGrath Feeder” ($13.55, Fig. 1). With high hopes we filled the bulb with our turpentine/linseed oil mix and applied the drenching tube to our first victim. The drench tube and its plastic end cap were immedi- ately eaten and swallowed. Not to be discouraged, we tried the other option, the “Jorvet Feeder” ($12.29, Fig. 2). Not only was this product also immediately eaten, but the solution bag tore.

Clearly, with over 400 head of cattle to drench, something had to change. To make a long, tedious, but creative, story short, by the end of the day we ended up with the “Larry Feeder”, courtesy of Larry Rose, Ayrshire Farm’s Head of Agricultural Technical Services (factotum) and John Hass, Ayrshire Farm Man- ager (Fig. 3).

The Larry Feeder is comprised of at least one 16 oz. plastic ketchup bottle, a smallish funnel, and two 1/2” hose-clamps. The spout end of the funnel is con- nected to a 6” piece of 1/2” OD (3/8” ID) vinyl tubing via one of the 1/2” hose- clamps (Fig. 4). The other end of the tubing is connected to a 20” stainless steel kitchen/toilet supply tube which has been inserted into an 18” section of 3/4” OD (5/8” ID) section of PVC electrical conduit, via the second hose-camp (Fig. 5).

For any more than a few head, it helps to have a number of ketchup bottles, as these may be pre-filled with the turpentine/linseed oil solution and handed to the drencher (the human one, that is) as needed. We experimented throughout the day with varying lengths of PVC and vinyl tubing, but found the above de- sign to work best for both calves and cows. The total cost of the parts is about $8.00. And, despite its modest price, the Larry Feeder remained whole (although somewhat chewed, Fig. 6) throughout the process of drenching the entire herd.

The process is very simple and is easiest with two people,. Line up your filled ketchup bottles. One person inserts the Larry Feeder into the mouth of the animal, making sure that the tube goes to the esophagus, not the trachea (windpipe). The second person holds the ketchup bottle firmly into the neck of the funnel and squeezes the drench down the feeder. The only point of the funnel is that it gives you a much larger “target” for the squirt bottle (Fig. 7).

The turpentine:flaxseed oil is 1:5. For a 1,000 lb. animal, use 30 ml:150 ml (1 oz. turpentine to 5 oz. linseed oil.) For a complete schedule of weights and dosages, please see the Ayrshire Farm website,

Organic Deworming Measurements

Fig 5 Assembly Fig 4 Assembly Fig 3 Larry Feeder Fig 2 Jorvet Feeder Fig 1 Springer-McGrath Feeder Fig 6 Larry Feeder Somewhat Chewed


~Sandy Lerner (C) 2012

*With apologies to R.E.M. who have done nothing whatsoever to deserve this.

Professional Compounding Pharmacists, Mr. Don Williams, owner (724) 294-0200, or

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Upperville, Virginia