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Can we learn to farm without antibiotics?

Farming without antibiotics may be a daunting prospect, but a new approach in the dairy sector is hoping to provide some practical support and answers. Jane Brown reports.

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Antibiotic usage in farm animals is a hot topic at the moment, and farmers are under increasing pressure to reduce their use of these important medicines. But how should they go about doing so without impacting on animal health?

One farm animal vet is hoping she has found the blueprint for helping the industry to tackle this challenge, by adopting a strategy which has proven successful in Denmark.

Lisa Morgans, a vet who now works for the University of Bristol Veterinary School, is setting up farmer-led groups as part of her PhD research into reducing antibiotic usage on dairy farms.

“The aim is to test and use the widely adopted ‘stable school’ approach, which is being used successfully across Europe,” she says.

Farmers visits

This approach brings together groups of farmers who host a visit and encourage discussion about ways to reduce antibiotic use. They then draw up an action plan for the host, and revisit the farm at the end of the cycle to see how effective the measures have been. In Denmark, it has proven so successful the approach has been adopted into legislation, and Miss Morgans hopes it will provide a template for a UK-wide strategy.

Sponsored by AHDB Dairy and the Langford Trust, the research project – which ends in 2019 – already has the ability to feed into such a nationwide strategy, through the levy board and Bristol veterinary school.

At the start of the process, Miss Morgans carries out a medicine audit for each farm, to ascertain how much they are actually spending and what antibiotics they are using. This will enable them to benchmark going forward.

“I am also asking how farmers think we should measure antibiotic use in a meaningful way – so far they are leaning towards usage per 1,000 litres or cost per litre of milk.”

Andy Biggs, a vet at the Vale Veterinary Practice, Tiverton, Devon, says farmers and vets need to change their culture when it comes to antibiotic use.

“With livestock we tend to give antibiotics fairly quickly because you cannot ask the animal how it is feeling. But I think we would be quite surprised how well they would cop; the key is to use as little as possible but as much as necessary.”

Alternative medicines have come a long way and farmers could make much better use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to control pain and help the animal recover by itself, says Mr Biggs. For example, a new pour-on NSAID is proving very useful in treatment of early calf pneumonia.


“If you see a slightly unwell calf, getting in with an early dose of NSAID could be enough to get it eating and feeling better, so that it does not turn into a clinical case of pneumonia – but you have always got antibiotics as a fallback if it does not work.”

The same is true of using NSAIDs in some mastitis cases, he adds. And the additional benefit is that some NSAIDs do not have a milk withdrawal period, unlike many antibiotics.

“If you have a staph aureus or strep uberis infection it will need antibiotics, but an E.coli infection may not require antibiotics, so you need to work with your vet to look at all the options.”

When cows are unwell, taking their temperature is also a useful way to decide whether or not to treat with antibiotics, says Mr Biggs.

“Unless the animal has a bacterial infection treating with antibiotics will not be of benefit.”

Why should we reduce antibiotic use?

· At least 700,000 people die around the world each year as a result of drug resistance. At this rate, it will cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050 (O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance)

· Northern European studies suggest fam animal use could be responsible for one in 370 human cases of resistant bacteria

· According to the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance, about 35 per cent of the UK’s antibiotic sales go to livestock farming. That is half the level seen in the US

· The British Government has committed to reducing antibiotic use in agriculture by about 20 per cent by 2018, to just 50mg of antibiotics used per kilo of livestock

In the field: Rachel Risdon, Woodrow Barton

In the field: Rachel Risdon, Woodrow Barton

Rachel Risdon milks 250 spring-calving cows at Woodrow Barton, Exeter, Devon, and as a practising vet is keen on reducing antibiotic use.

“But I also get quite cross because farmers are already doing so much and nobody’s shouting about the good news,” she says.

“Public perception is really quite distorted from reality.”

To preserve the efficacy of critically important antibiotics, Mrs Risdon does not use any fluoroquinolones or later generation cephalosporins.

“The problem is that third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins are very convenient, with nil milk-withdrawal. But none of us want to be responsible for someone dying of an untreatable infection due to antibiotic resistance.”

This summer, quite a few of the cows suffered from teat warts, which was resulting in mastitis.

“The challenge was whether we needed to treat them all or not.”

Mrs Risdon also had a number of cases of calf pneumonia the previous year, which the group flagged up as an action point.

“We debated how to modify the calf shed, and we have already started doing that.”

Another area for improvement was increasing use of lime on the cubicles, and tackling foul-in-the-foot caused by heifers crossing the main railway line for TB testing.

“We have started footbathing the heifers on their way back out to the fields, so it will be interesting to see how effective that is.”

In the field: Ben Prior, Upper Combe Farm

Ben Prior milks 180 Holstein Friesians in a family partnership at Upper Combe Farm, Chippenham, Wiltshire, and hosted the first meeting this summer. Having been organic between 2007 and 2013, he is used to minimising medicine use, and is now converting back to organic production.

“We would like to manage our cows so antibiotics are not so necessary – we want cows which have good immunity and low disease incidence, and if we can achieve that I will be very happy,” he says.

Rearing all his heifers and finishing beef crosses and Holstein steers, Mr Prior is spending about £8,000 a year on all medicines – or about £30 a cow excluding youngstock, vaccinations and teat sealant.

“I like to benchmark against others as we do not know if we are heavy users of antibiotics or not.”

Compared to others, Mr Prior’s medicine use is relatively low, but his group still found some points to add to the action plan, including keeping better medicine records, moving from feeding waste milk to powdered milk, and avoiding third generation antibiotics. “We have 35 cases of mastitis per 100 cows, which is not too bad, but apparently we should be using more anti-inflammatory painkillers for mastitis,” he says.

“We already use selective dry cow therapy, have a fortnightly vet visit and a herd health plan in place. We vaccinate our heifers for pneumonia but will probably start vaccinating the beef calves, too.”

However, the economic argument for moving to first or second generation antibiotics is not yet there, warns Mr Prior.

“We use a ceftiofur sodium product to treat foul-in-the-foot, which costs £36 for one jab whereas cefalexin costs £40-51 per five-day treatment.”

Instead, he is trying to focus on tackling the infection head-on.

“We have one water trough which is surrounded by Cotswold stone which we think causes a lot of problems – we are planning to concrete around the trough so we do not get lameness in the first place,” he says.

“To effectively reduce antibiotic usage it needs to be a team effort; thankfully we have some great people working for us who are motivated to continually improve the way we look after our stock.”

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