Maintain a healthy herd while cutting down on antibiotics

Big retailers in Britain recommend reducing the use of dry-cow tubes
Big retailers in Britain recommend reducing the use of dry-cow tubes
Mick Magan
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Does it make sense to try to minimise the use of antibiotics when you are drying off cows?

One Longford farmer thinks so. Mick Magan, along with his dad Mike, run a 160 cow herd at Kilashee in south Longford.

Two years ago, they decided to try to reduce the amount of dry cow tubes they were administering to their cows by following recommendations from Animal Health Ireland (AHI).

Mike, through his involvement with AHI, was acutely aware of the looming issue of anti-microbial resistance, and the wider implications for the Irish dairy industry.

"We knew from developments in Britain that it was possible to reduce the amount of antibiotics we were routinely using without compromising the health of our herd," he said.

Three years ago, the Magans decided to make a move. Using their milk recording data, they decided any cow with an average somatic cell count (SCC) of more than 150,000 would continue to receive the standard dry-cow therapy of a long-acting antibiotic and a teat seal.

However, cows under this level were administered a teat-seal only. It meant half of the herd went into the dry-period without the traditional protection of the antibiotics - and it worked.

"We really didn't have any problems. Obviously, there were still cases of mastitis and elevated SCCs in individual cows during the subsequent lactation, but nothing out of the ordinary," said Mick (below). Emboldened by the success of the change, the process was repeated and extended the following year.

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"We were looking at what the big retailers like Waitrose and Tesco were recommending in Britain. They are very keen to really minimise the amount of antibiotics used on the farms that supply their milk and they developed a protocol that recommends farmers avoid using traditional dry-cow tubes on cows with cell counts of up to 200,000. By increasing this ceiling, it significantly reduced the proportion of cows requiring antibiotic treatment to just 20pc," he said.

So did this change work? In short, yes. In fact, the herd average SCC has been falling by 10,000-15,000 annually for the last five years to the point where it is now at 160,000.

In this, their third year using selective dry-cow therapy, the numbers of cows still receiving antibiotics at drying off fell again, albeit in less dramatic fashion compared to the previous two years.

"It's a great way of paying for the milk recording," said Mike.

"We've always milk recorded since the day we became a registered herd and always justified the €6-€7/cow cost through the extra value of the breeding stock sales.


"But I feel the savings we make on the antibiotics for drying off cows pretty much covers the cost of the milk recording now."

The next step? It should be possible to reduce the reliance on antibiotics even further than the Magans have achieved by utilising the latest technology now available at farm level.

The best way of curing any mastitis infection, whether it is a clinical or sub-clinical one, is by knowing what type of bug you are treating for. Different antibiotics work better on different bacteria whether it's Staph aureus or Strep uberis. While this was a long and expensive process when samples had to be sent off to the co-op laboratory, new gadgets that attach to smartphone cameras will revolutionise all this.

While the best example, the RT10, is still expensive at €2,000, it is likely the cost will come down dramatically over the coming years.

This will allow farmers to cure cases faster and more completely, and ultimately reduce the cell counts in both individual cows and the overall herd.

Why is Anti-Microbial resistance a big deal?

The emergence of superbugs such as MRSA has sparked alarm among the medical profession concerned about the declining efficacy of many key antibiotics that we've relied on for decades.

The finger of blame is pointed at three parties: doctors that over-prescribe antibiotics; patients who don't follow prescriptions properly; and the biggest antibiotic user of all - the farm sector.

A reliance on blanket treatment of animals with antibiotics over the years has led to a situation where the vast majority of these drugs used globally are administered to animals.

In Ireland alone, it's estimated that over 100t of antibiotics are used in the animal sector annually. The biggest proportion of these - approximately one third - are used in feed in intensive meat-rearing systems. In Ireland's case this is generally pigs and poultry.

An over-dependence on these drugs has allowed antimicrobial resistance to develop in certain bacteria - MRSA being the most high profile example. Medics are concerned that if current trends continue, more antibiotics humans rely on to fight disease will become obsolete.

For this reason, there is a big push on, through global organisations such as the WHO, to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in farming, especially ones that are deemed 'optional'.

The amount of antibiotics used in dry-cow therapy accounts for less than 5pc of the total used here, but that doesn't mean the relatively relaxed rules governing their usage will continue long-term.

Already, the prescribing of dry-cow tubes has come under pressure, but farm organisations succeeded in preventing a prescription-only regime applying to dry-cow antibiotics in the same way as most other medicines.

Currently, a handful of vets associated with the country's milk processors sign off on the use of these antibiotics across almost every supplier's herd.

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