In the third in this series looking at measuring success in beef, we look at the issue of use of antibiotics and what it means for beef farmers.
Antimicrobial resistance has been defined as the biggest single threat to human health by the World Health Organisation.
The problem of antimicrobial resistance has prompted concerns that resistance, or resistant bacteria, could be transferred from livestock to human population and vice-versa. As a result, the effectiveness of some human antimicrobial treatments might be compromised.
The farming sector has been set a number of targets to encourage the responsible use of these antimicrobials to safeguard these products in future.
Clare Hill, agricultural strategy manager with FAI Farms, says: “Beef farmers may feel like they do not need to do anything, because as a sector, antibiotic use is lower than that of other sectors, but the responsible approach to take is ‘as little as possible, but as much as necessary’.
This is a view shared by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA). Chris Lloyd, secretary general of RUMA, warns the beef sector ‘must not rest on its laurels’.
Mr Lloyd explains the RUMA-led Targets Task Force has worked with sector representatives and identified some ‘hotspots’ where antibiotic use is preventative or preventable.
He explains one of these hotspots is during the calf rearing process: “For example, insufficient quality and quantity of colostrum at birth doubles the risk of pneumonia.”
Mr Lloyd says when taking the responsible approach to treating the problem of calf scour, it is important to identify which pathogen is present and select a suitable treatment to be used alongside rehydration.
Mrs Hill agrees and says in order to gain a clear diagnosis, and also look at preventing disease in the first place, farmers need to foster closer relationships with their farm vets.
She says: “As well as gaining specific diagnosis so you can target treatment accordingly, your vet can give advice on farm biosecurity, vaccination programmes and health plans.
“It is a requirement of Farm Assurance to undertake an annual herd health plan with your vet, but this health plan should be more than just a ‘tick-box’ exercise.
Mrs Hill says she does not expect this closer relationship with vets to be ‘resource’ heavy: “It is not about having to have a set number of routine visits like would happen on dairy units, but it is important to engage proactively with vets to gain their knowledge and advice.”
An agent which kills, or stops the growth of, a micro-organism. For example an antibiotic is used against bacteria micro-organisms.
It is the ability of a micro-organism, such as bacteria, viruses and some parasites, to stop an anti-microbial, such as antibiotics, from working against it. As a result, standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and may spread to others.
Certain antibiotic classes are categorised by the World Health Organisation as CIAs for human use, of which several are designated as ‘highest priority CIAs’. In the UK, fluoroquinolones, third and fourth generation cephalosporins and colistin are recognised as the most important CIAs.
Beef farmers are encouraged to consider more responsible use of antimicrobials in youngstock, with particular emphasis on respiratory disease problems. Calves from dairy herds are at particular risk from respiratory diseases because often calf rearers are taking in calves from multiple sources.
Vet Jenny Bellini, of Friars Moor Vets, in the south west of England, says a good starting point for these conversations with the farm vet is to start measuring and benchmarking antibiotic use on your farm.
She says: “It is easy to lose track of what antibiotics you are using, but unless you know what is being used, it is difficult to do anything about it.
“It is easy to keep doing what you have always done when it comes to animal health, but it is important to sit down and go through your farm’s data to find out how practices can be refined.”
Mrs Hill says this benchmarking does not necessarily need state of-the-art software and could be as simple as making use of records already kept, which can be easily tracked back through.
“You can start asking questions about how much antibiotics are being used year-on-year, and whether there are any areas of concern, or animals which are requiring repeated treatment.”
As well as taking a responsible approach to antimicrobial use on-farm, Ms Bellini says it is important to think about other areas of animal health.
She says: “This includes vaccination programmes to prevent disease in the first place, and also management tools such as biosecurity, and improvements to farm hygiene, for example cleanliness in calving sheds, all of which will help improve the health of the herd.”
By adopting a responsible approach to antimicrobial use, it is hoped beef farmers can protect our existing stock of antibiotics from the development of resistance, as new antibiotics are unlikely to be made available for treatment of farm animals in the future.
Mr Lloyd says: “The new measures being brought-in by Red Tractor this month will help support a responsible approach and will benefit the reputation of the sector.”
He says while many believe beef farmers are currently low users, the sector is not yet in a position to prove this.
Mr Lloyd says: “This is why we hope the sector will take advantage of efforts to gather data. The cattle e-Medicine Book, currently being piloted by AHDB, will be one way of aggregating information already kept on-farm.”
In industry-led targets for antibiotic use in beef, published by the Targets Task Force in October 2017, the aim is for a 10 per cent reduction in antibiotic use by 2020, subject to securing better data. The sector will aim to halve use of the highest priority Critically Important Antibiotics by 2020.
McDonald’s, in line with the wider livestock sector, has adopted an approach to antimicrobial stewardship based on the three Rs of reduce, replace and refine:
Discontinue routine preventative treatments, for example in calves, and focus on discontinuing use of the CIAs; farmers are advised to record all medicine usage promptly and accurately in a medicine book, app or management software, to allow the effective monitoring of reductions in usage over time.
Look for sustainable alternatives to medicine use by assessing management, husbandry, nutrition, vaccinations and housing, with a view to preventing disease in the first place; for example, infrastructure investments to improve housing and ventilation, where feasible.
Farmers should work with their vets to devise robust and proactive herd health plans, with a preventative medicine focus, and to ensure all medicines are prescribed and used under veterinary direction.