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Blurred lines (March 23)

Award-winning columnist and Shropshire-based producer Roger Evans says there’s plenty to champion about dairying, but the message isn’t getting through to the public.

One of our final big jobs when we were producing organic milk was to stop using antibiotics. PWAB they called it – ‘produced without antibiotics’. The cynic in me says that PWAB was devised to increase the blurred lines between organic milk and that produced by more conventional means. Those lines of difference have also become more blurred because artificial fertiliser has become so expensive. Conventional milk producers are becoming more reliant on what manures and leguminous crops, such as clover, will do.

The biggest step for us was when we stopped using dry cow therapy. Our somatic cell counts weren’t brilliant, but we moved away from dry cow antibiotics just by using teat sealants on problems cows, as well as lots and lots of uddermint. Uddermint is an extremely precious commodity here because it is much loved by young rugby players, at our rugby club. Back in the day the changing room used to stink with pre-match embrocation, now it smells minty.

As an industry, farming has a superb record for reducing antibiotic use and, as a result, the resistance to some antibiotics use in humans has also decreased. The seriousness of this resistance cannot be overstated. But that isn’t the whole story. A doctor once told me that it was quite easy to predict that 75% of the patients his surgery would see would come in on a Monday morning. Why Monday morning? Because they would have a weekend’s worth of coughs, colds and aches and pains and sneezes to take to the doctor. And, he says, they would all demand antibiotics.

It is human nature that if you were a busy GP, there that’s what you would give them. All they would really need is to sit by the fire and to watch TV, which is all most of them would do anyway. So the overuse of antibiotics is not all farming’s fault.

I’ve not been to the doctors much but I do remember that I once went with gout in my big toe. Boy, did it hurt. I could only get my slipper on the one foot. I sat down in a full waiting room and it was full of all the minor aliments I have previously described. But at the other end were two farmers that I knew had cancer. I felt ashamed just to be there. They both passed away within three months.

About 10 years ago I was asked to speak at a morning meeting of a well-known society. There were about 50 people there and they were all men, they were all retired, and they came from all walks of life. I mostly talked about milk and its purity, and I touched on antibiotics, how milk was tested for this every day and the penalties that producers paid if things went wrong. I also spoke about milk hormones (BST) and said it was not available in this country, but that you could buy it and use it elsewhere in the world. There was time for questions at the end.

It soon became quite clear that they didn’t believe me and, more worryingly, they didn’t want to believe me. It’s a problem we as producers have. Society in general would much prefer to blame farmers for most things. It’s a problem that also includes other issues.

We have paid good money to organisations who claim to represent us, but on communication they have failed us. We, as managers of cows, know full well that if there were antibiotics in our milk then the penalties would soon put us out of business. And as for buying BST – I wouldn’t even know where to look.

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