Cows feeding©Tim Scrivener

A survey of more than 200 UK dairy farmers by Farmers Weekly and animal health company Zoetis found only 68% of farmers have heard about selective dry cow therapy, with three-quarters of Arla suppliers having heard about it. We look at the findings of the survey in-depth.

As part of its Arlagarden quality assurance programme, from 1 October Arla requires all of its producers to discuss and agree with their vet the use of antibiotics in their dry cows and make a move to using selective dry cow therapy.

See also: E-learning advice on transition cow management

Top findings

  • 68% of farmers have heard about selective dry cow therapy
  • 32% are concerned about it
  • 78% are using an internal teat sealant
  • 73% are testing for bacteria causing mastitis on farm
  • 33% claim maintaining cleanliness at drying off is the hardest problem to manage
  • £7,531 is the average annual spend on antibiotics in a herd

Many dairy farmers’ drying off practices have involved blanket use of antibiotics across all cows to treat and prevent any new infections developing during the dry period.

However, farmers are being encouraged to target antibiotics use.

This is due to concerns over antibiotic resistance, the effectiveness of teat sealants in mastitis prevention and research showing use of narrow-spectrum antibiotics in low-cell count cows could increase the risk of clinical mastitis in the following lactation.

Selective dry cow therapy

Of the farmers that had heard about selective dry cow therapy, 30% were positive about it, saying they were either practising it, thought it was progressive, or would make things better and cheaper.

However, 32% said they were concerned about it, believing it would add more time, it was risky, or could lead to an increase in cell counts.

Mastitis expert Andrew Bradley, director of Quality Milk Management Services, says the cost benefits from selective dry cow therapy are quite clear.

“Selective dry cow therapy could potentially save farmers money by reducing medicine costs. There is also evidence to show it could reduce mastitis incidence in the following lactation, which is a difficult concept for farmers to get their heads around. However, it relies on them being backed up with good advice and support from their vet,” he adds.

How do you select cows for drying off?

Encouragingly, the results show many farmers are already adopting certain elements of selective dry cow therapy, with about three-quarters of respondents (78%) using an internal teat sealant – either on its own or alongside antibiotics.

Meanwhile, 73% claim they identify mastitis bacteria causing infection on their farms and 39% say they choose different antibiotics for different cases in consultation with their vets.

Testing confusion

Commenting on the results, Dr Bradley says he is surprised by the high number of farmers identifying mastitis-causing bacteria and believes they may be confused by what is required when testing.

“I would believe the figure if it was 7.8%,” he says. “I suspect that of the 73% who claim to be testing for mastitis bacteria, many will be basing their results on bulk tank culture, which is not identifying mastitis bacteria.

“There is a huge misconception that if you do a bulk milk tank PCR it can tell you what mastitis-causing bacteria are present – this is complete nonsense.

The vast amount of bacteria in a bulk tank is from the environment. You will find E coli and Strep uberis in the tank, but so what? You find these bacteria in faeces, too.”

How do you select which antibiotics to use?

Dr Bradley says farmers need to do individual cow bacteriology in high-cell count cows and mastitic cows on a regular basis to identify pathogens on the farm.

Results show larger herds (average 351 cows) are also more likely to be identifying bacteria causing infections (80%), compared with 66% of smaller farms (those with an average of 134 cows).

Dr Bradley suggests larger herds may be testing more as they have larger data sets and can see the benefits. He adds: “It doesn’t mean smaller farmers aren’t good stockmen, but it’s harder for them to take an analytical approach as they don’t have the cow numbers.”

Use of internal teat sealants

The mastitis level reported by respondents was 22 in 100 cows, which is below the national average of 40-50 in 100.

Dr Bradley says this could be down to a lack of reporting, farmers applying an average from memory, or a bias towards “better” farmers answering the survey.

The cost of antibiotics also varied from farm to farm. The average cost per head of milking and dry cows was £22.11 – with smaller farms (average 134 cows) reporting a lower antibiotics cost of £15.34, compared with a cost for larger herds (average 351 cows) of £29.89.

Dry period challenges

When asked about challenges at drying off, 33% of farmers say hygiene and keeping the teats clean were the biggest issues, with 5% admitting that keeping cows on the right diet and at the correct body condition score was a challenge.

And almost all respondents (82%) say they are trying to adopt better hygiene as a way of reducing antibiotics usage.

Why do you choose not to use an internal teat sealant?

Dr Bradley says cleanliness should be the primary focus at drying off. “This is even more important when using a sealant on its own, because if bacteria are pushed into a low-SCC, uninfected quarter there is a significant risk of severe and even toxic mastitis.”

Dr Bradley stresses the importance of making the drying-off process a dedicated task. “It should not take place during milking time or in an environment with a lot of dust and water. It is an important job and should not be rushed,” he says.

Dr Bradley says Arla’s move to selective dry cow therapy is going to force a lot of farmers to look at procedures and modify their practices.

“While I cannot predict whether other milk processors will follow Arla’s suit, it will ultimately be the consumers and supermarkets that will drive farmers to look at their use of antibiotics.”

Sponsor’s message

zoetis-logoZoetis Animal Health, manufacturer of OrbeSeal

The dry period represents the biggest opportunity for farmers to make an improvement in udder health and set a cow up for a productive subsequent lactation.

Teat sealants have an important role in preventing infection in the dry period and, therefore, should be used on every cow.

OrbeSeal-LogoOrbeSeal is a tried-and-trusted treatment to reduce mastitis, with more than 10 years of on-farm success.

Speak to your vet about how OrbeSeal can reduce the cost of mastitis on your farm.

OrbeSeal POM-V, contains 65% bismuth subnitrate. Further information is available on the product SPC. Alternatively, contact your veterinary surgeon or contact Zoetis UK, Walton Oaks, Dorking Road, Walton on the Hill, Tadworth, Surrey KT20 7NS. Customer Support 0845 300 8034.

Always seek the advice of your medicines provider. Use medicines responsibly:

Want to know more about best practice dry cow therapy?

FW_Academy_logoRead the Farmers Weekly e-learning module, sponsored by Zoetis, which explains more about the role of antibiotics in the dry period and selective dry cow therapy.

You can also earn Dairy Pro CPD points by taking the test.