Westpoint Farm Vets’ Tim Potter outlines how herd health planning – and regular reviews – are key to continuing to reduce antibiotic use in the dairy sector.
The responsible use of medicines and the reduction of antimicrobial usage remains top of the agenda for the dairy sector, but it needs to be viewed as part of a holistic approach to animal health and welfare.
The success the industry has seen so far in reducing antimicrobial use is testimony to the sector’s engagement and the widespread implementation of best practice. But further sustainable reductions will require increased uptake of tools such as vaccination and disease-eradication programmes, as well as improving and optimising cattle husbandry and the environment. So it’s important that every herd’s annual medicines review is seen as a key part of the health-planning process – and not simply a ‘box ticking’ or benchmarking exercise.
It’s been a Red Tractor Dairy standards requirement since 2017 for producers to carry out an annual audit of antibiotic usage on the farm, and to review the results with the herd’s vet. The discussions around antibiotic usage should include a review of any high-priority critically-important-antibiotic use, prophylactic treatments, as well as selective dry cow therapy. Producers and vets should also review ‘cascade’ use, in other words the use of medicines that the vet has advised to be used in a way that is not stated on the datasheet for that medicine. Vets and producers should use this opportunity to plan alternative strategies to reduce antibiotic use where possible.
When carried out correctly, the annual medicine review can be an invaluable part of the health-planning process and can provide insight into specific disease challenges on farm. It can form the basis of focused discussions, between producer and vet, on key plans to tackle health challenges for the next 12 months.
There is no shortage of herd health, fertility and production data on modern dairy units, but often the biggest challenge is interpreting it and then acting on it. Antimicrobial data, particularly when based on sales information from vet practices, is easy to access and provides a good overall view of the herd health. Once collated it can often be simple to identify rapidly where specific products are being used, which gives immediate insight into the prevailing diseases on farm.
Protocol review: look at current treatments and question them
Once the largest areas of antimicrobial usage have been identified, discussions can progress on to how to reduce these. Producers and vets should always review current treatment protocols, and question them. Are you happy with the way animals respond to treatments? What is the success rate of treatments? Are there refinements that can be made to existing protocols? What steps can be taken to avoid the need for antimicrobial treatment in the future, either through improvements in management or by using tools such as vaccines?
During the past couple of years challenges around COVID-19 and Brexit have seen a large number of vet products going out of stock for periods of time. This means that it is more important than ever to review what is currently being used and to ensure that all treatment protocols are up to date.
Annual audit: take stock of antibiotic use
Take the opportunity to involve the whole team in the process. Current farm assurance guidelines require at least one member of the team to have gone through accredited training on responsible use of medicines, but the annual medicine review can be a great opportunity to ensure everyone is aware of the key principles of responsible use, and that the whole team is clear on what products should be used when and is familiar with any treatment protocols. The annual medicines review required for farm assurance should be viewed as an opportunity to drive herd improvement.
Done properly, reviews provide valuable insight into your herd’s health challenges, enabling producers to set focused targets for improvements in the coming months.