Reducing antibiotic use for sustainable agriculture

The aim of this session was to learn from research and on farm practice towards reducing antibiotic use and promoting sustainable and responsible health management. Come and discuss the problems, and identify solutions and actions we need to take to reduce antibiotic resistance going forward. This session was organised by the Soil Association (OGA)
Tim Bevan (Soil Association): chair.

Session summary

Tim Bevan (Soil Association) chaired the session and excused David Tisdall (Clinical teaching fellow in farm animal science at the University of Bristol and the clinical lead of Langford Farm Animal Practice), who was unable to attend.

Christine Gosling (Berkeley Farm), with her husband and son, manages a fourth generation family holding with 170 Guernsey cows farmed organically since 1998. They have their own on farm processing – and supply milk, butter and cream to Abel and Cole, Marshfield ice cream, Neal’s Yard Dairy and local shops and restaurants. Christine and eight other farmers are involved in the field lab on Reducing antibiotic use in dairy farming run by the Soil Association and ORC (Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme). They meet on different farms (five times last year) supported by an advisor, William Waterfield, who facilitates and chairs the discussions. At the end of the session the participants make suggestions based on their experience. Further topics discussed other than mastitis and laminitis (principal illnesses in dairying), are hygiene and biosecurity, housing, breeding, soil management, nutrition, milking… They have been trialling an udder treatment based on mint oil on 500 cows from 9 different herds. The farmers have found that when it is used early in non- severe mastitis there is a 50% reduction in antibiotics doses per animal. Christine also highlighted that the farmers are learning practical research skills and are more confident they will be able to reduce antibiotics in order to raise healthy herds and profitable farms.

Richard Young speaks in the antibiotics workshop

Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust and an advisor to the Soil Association, remarked that the challenge of healing with antibiotics since bacterial resistance to drugs has increased dramatically during the last few decades. “If we don’t take action, then we may all be back in an almost 19th Century environment where infections kill us as a result of routine operations.” Dame Sally Davies CMO. Peak antibiotics reached in 1954 and the last new major class of antibiotics was released in 1987. At present only five new antibiotics are in phase 111 trials. Antibiotics resistance is linked to farm use in Salmonella and Campylobacter and especially in extra-intestinal Escherichia coli bacteria which are 40% resistant to amoxicillin and 20% to fluoroquinolones in human infections. A DEFRA enquiry found that milk still in withdrawal period following antibiotic use was being fed to calves on 70% of dairy farms. Feeding this untreated waste milk to calves can lead to exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria.- DEFRA found cefquinome, a modern cephalosporin, in 21% of waste milk samples. The cost of antimicrobials resistance has been estimated in £ 5 billion for the NHS and another £ 5 billion for society according to Smith and Coast 2013.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Preventative practices and a holistic approach are fundamental to reducing antibiotic use on farm. The attitude of the individual farmer is critical to successes is reducing antibiotic use. A Preventive medicine from an holistic approach is the key point to reduce antibiotics and other drugs while increasing animal health status in dairy farms. Cold water treatment was discussed and the importance of identifying the causal pathogen for the mastitis.
  • Practitioners and vets need to distinguish when a complementary and alternative treatment (CAM) is suitable and when an antibiotic is the best option.

Action points

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Further monitoring is required in lab fields in order to have stronger data to support alternative treatments to antibiotics.
  • Continue the lab field trial incorporating new treatments and with a clear focus (e.g. teat seals) thanks to Dr. Konstantinos Zaralis’ insights (current livestock researcher at the ORC) and Dr. Gonzalo Palomo’s review (formerly guest researcher at the ORC).

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Christine Gosling (Berkeley Farm): Putting research into practice: lessons learnt from a field lab to reduce antibiotics on the dairy farm

An explanation of the Field Lab programme, who is funding it and why, the farmers involved and what was discussed in the early meetings – including nutrition, breeding, management, housing, mastitis treatments and protocol, homeopathy, prevention of mastitis and dry cow therapy.The decision to trial udder mint as a treatment for mastitis and high cell counts and the method used and welfare considerations for the cows. A description of udder mint, the composition, effect and side effects (samples will be available for an experience of the effect on skin). The results and conclusion of the trial, and the problems and benefits incurred. The next stage of the trial using udder mint as a preventative treatment for mastitis and high cell counts, including the method and monitoring of results. The benefits of the field lab, comments from the farmers involved and a commendation to William Waterfield, The Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation, The Organic Research Centre, The Soil Association and Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.

Richard Young (Sustainable Food Trust): Organic farming and antibiotics – problems and solutions.

The development of antibiotic resistance is an inevitable process, but it is greatly encouraged by misuse and overuse. All use of antibiotics can cause resistance to increase, but low level use over prolonged periods is more likely to cause problems than full therapeutic use for short periods. Antibiotics are a finite resource and there is growing pressure for them to be used as sparingly as possible in all human and veterinary medicine. No new antibiotic classes have been developed since the mid-1980s, ‘peak antibiotics’ would have been in the mid-1950s and we are unlikely ever to get better antibiotics than we currently have. Organic farmers already use antibiotics with extreme care, avoiding routine preventative use as well as antibiotics critically important in human medicine, except in very rare situations. But is there a danger that in their caution some organic farmers will not use antibiotics when they really should do so? Where should we draw the line? Organic farmers also observe extended withdrawal periods after use. These can greatly increase costs, especially in dairy farming. Are these really necessary and are there alternatives that genuinely help to reduce the need for treatment? Also, do we really need to avoid top of the range antibiotics in intramammary tubes, even if these are related to important medical drugs, when any bacteria and therefore any resistance will be killed by pasteurisation?

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