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A closer look at how the Netherlands has slashed its antibiotics use

The Netherlands has drastically reduced its antibiotic usage over recent years, driven by government led policy and implemented by farmers and vets.

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Netherlands slashes its antibiotics use over recent years

DUTCH vet Erik Boer says the reduction of antibiotic is not the goal, but instead restricting their use to reduce and prevent subsequent resistance.


Before 2009, the Netherlands held the title of the lowest consumer of antibiotics in human medicine while being the greatest in terms of veterinary medicine.


Major discussions started 10 years ago around the use of antibiotics in the nation’s agricultural industry and until 2009 there was a particularly high use of antibiotics in the Dutch pig industry resulting in a Government-set target of slashing use by half in three years across all species.


At the same time, the preventative use of antibiotics was banned. The Government set three basic principles, reducing the use of antibiotics, improving the use of antibiotics and making the use of these drugs more transparent.

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The Dutch industry was set with targets of reducing antibiotic use by 20 per cent before 2011 and 50 per cent by 2013. And they were successful, being mid-way in the European antibiotic league table before 2009 and now sitting at the bottom.


A central database was created in 2010 and monitored by the Netherlands Veterinary Medicines Authority where all prescribed antibiotics on-farm are registered. The following year a ban was put in place on in-feed antibiotics, with growth promoters previously being banned in 2006.


Vets now work closely with farmers, with every farm requiring a designated vet who visits monthly, and together they construct health plans in a bid to tighten the use of drugs.


Antibiotics were previously dispensed by vets and farmers could hold stocks, but preventative medicine is now the driving force.

Kier Bloemert
Kier Bloemert

In the field: Kier Bloemert, calf rearer


After deciding he could not profitably continue in pig production after 30 years in the industry, Dutch farmer Kier Bloemert has now been rearing white veal calves for five years.


Adapting his pig housing and building additional shed space, he jumped straight into production with 1,350 calves. The farm is 22 hectares (54 acres) and runs an intensive system on slatted flooring.


Arriving at 44kg, calves are grown to about 26-28 weeks of age, producing a 155kg carcase at 300kg liveweight, with all animals leaving the farm within a fortnight of each other. The calves are mainly out of Holsteins, which Mr Bloemert says are long in the body and cheaper to buy.


Fuite, a family-run feed milling business with a veal processing arm, provides a contract rearing system and supplies Mr Bloemert with the bull calves, mainly imported from Germany and arriving at a minimum of two weeks old.


Batches of 600-700 are delivered at a time and two weeks later another delivery of the same number is received, following an all-in, all-out system.


Fuite provides the feed and animals and also carries the risk. If a calf dies within 14 days, it is the responsibility of the calf provider and not the farm. If calves get rotavirus, the group is culled and Fuite absorb the cost.


Mr Bloemert says: “When the calves arrive, the first thing we do is give them some water after traveling a long way but it is difficult when they have come straight off their mother.


“When mixed together from different sources, calves are exposed to all sorts of bacteria and diseases from one another, but no vaccinations are given to the calves. Calves arriving on-farm are stressed and often have a low immunity as in many cases the most colostrum goes to the calves which stay on the dairy farms from which the calves are sourced.”


The vet visits every week for the first six weeks and records what is being administered and the records are independently checked.


Mr Bloemert has instead changed what were routinely used treatments to alternative products, many of which are derived from natural ingredients. A gut enhancer – made-up of etheric oils, organic acids and herb extract – is fed each day for the first 10 weeks to build a buffer in the gut. He says this has led to better feed conversion rates and growth, with calves gaining 1.06kg/day, all while using less antibiotics.


He feeds a solution designed to combat scours consisting of mojave yucca, fatty acids and palm kernel, and says it improves their vigour. If it does not appear to work on its first dose, it will be used again. He likes using the product as its use does not need to be recorded and a five-litre bottle will last one cycle of 1,350 calves.


Pneumonia is the biggest problem among his calves, which he says will involve the administration of antibiotics, and generally there are very few intestinal problems.


Mr Bloemert says older farmers were used to having stocks of antibiotics but have adapted to working in this new way, and he says previous habits have changed dramatically although the older generation are not quite yet fully at ease.


He says: “I have lived through a change when it comes to antibiotic use, but I would not go back to the way I farmed before.”

Rene Weijs
Rene Weijs

In the field: Rene Weijs, pig farmer


Rene Weijs expanded his pig production in 2010 to increase the profitability of his business. This coincided with the drive to reduce antibiotic use, with the pig sector decreasing use by 62 per cent since 2009.


He doubled his production and now has 3,200 pigs which are taken from his brother’s unit as piglets.


He finishes 3.3 rounds per year on a slatted floor, following an all-in, all-out system and says he can now spread his fixed costs over more heads with plans to further increase his herd to 6,000 pigs. Pigs arrive at the farm at 27kg at 11 weeks old and grow on until 120-125kg, taking 110 days.


Mr Weijs says if he has disease he will speak to his vet and his feed adviser. He says using less medication is largely about making the most of the climate and water and uses water mist to cool pigs in summer. He has a chemical air cleaner but hopes to replace this with a biological one.


He uses a water treatment product and, since doing so, has experienced fewer problems with coughing while pig intakes have increased. Transparent sections in water pipes were fitted so water quality can be checked from the corridor in his pig building.


Oxycyclin used to be commonly used in the first week of having the piglets but after vets carried out blood samples, they now vaccinate for circovirus.


The farm sees 3.5 per cent mortality, 2 per cent of which is due to porcine ileitis – a condition of the small intestine.


Levels of pleurisis, a condition of the lungs, are significantly lower than the national average of 20 per cent, with Mr Weijs’ herd sitting at just 5 per cent.


Antibiotic use is now three to four daily doses, a European measurement of antibiotic use, whereas before it was above 10.


He speaks to his vet regularly who visits every six weeks, but adds: “My vet bill is the same as before the tighter antibiotic rules as, although less antibiotics are used, more vaccines and time are being invested.”

Keeping antibiotics on-farm in the Netherlands

Dutch holdings have three attempts to tackle a disease on-farm


First choice antibiotics: These are narrow spectrum antibiotics and can be kept by the farmer, but only in enough quantity to treat 15 per cent of all animals on-farm at that time. These drugs would include penicillins, tetracyclines and sulphonamides.


Second choice antibiotics: These are broad spectrum antibiotics and can be kept on-farm for 14 days and no more than three diseases can be targeted with these drugs. There can only be enough antibiotics to treat 5 per cent of veal calves on-farm or 10 per cent of pig or dairy cattle numbers. These include beta-lactams, colistin and aminoglycosides and are only allowed once the animals have been blood tested.


Third choice antibiotics: The vet has to administer these third and fourth generation antibiotics. The vet records its administration and takes a picture of the case. These would include fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins. These antibiotics are prohibited for food producing animals.

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