How a beef farmer cut antibiotics use in suckler herd by 74%

Suckler-finisher Sebastian Richardson and his family have cut antibiotics use by 74% since 2015.

In a pioneering approach to his herd management, Mr Richardson of Townsend Farm, Oundle, has been monitoring drug use by recording the amount of active antibiotics used and dividing that by deadweight output.

Drugs use in the 90-head cross-bred herd, which he farms with parents James and Deborah and grandparents John and Isobel, has fallen significantly.

Since 2015, drugs use has been reduced from 16.4mg/kg deadweight to 4.14mg/kg deadweight, despite the fact the herd has doubled from 60-head.

Calf pneumonia cases have fallen from 5-10% to 1-2%.

See also: Thermal imaging cuts antibiotics use on Northants beef farm

Farm facts

  • 809ha consisting of 526ha is arable and 284ha grazing
  • All grassland in Higher Level or Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship
  • 90-head cross-bred suckler herd using Limousin and Angus bulls
  • Flock of 530 North Country Mules put to Texel and Charollais
  • Growing winter wheat, winter and spring barley for malting, winter beans and spring naked oats
  • Farm employs Sebastian, father James and one other full-time member of staff

Antibiotics use was mainly in the form of oxytetracycline and tulathromycin, which have both been scaled back to just four oxytetracycline doses (feet, infected navals) and one tulathromycin dose (bull calf with pneumonia).

Farming more sustainably

Antimicrobial stewardship is something Mr Richardson feels passionate about and he is also seeing improvements in his sheep flock, which he runs alongside an arable operation.

Last year, oral antibiotic use fell in the lambing shed by 30%. A total of 900 lambs were dosed compared with 1,300 in 2018.

“I’m trying to farm more sustainably, and this applies to the lambing shed as well,” he explains.

“Unless I’m advised by our vets, I don’t intend to use a critically important antibiotic.

“However, it’s important to nip diseases in the bud early and remain as vigilant as ever,” says Mr Richardson, who adds that vaccinations don’t eliminate the need for antibiotics.

Below are ways in which they have reduced antibiotics use:

1. Vaccinations

  • A vaccination programme for BVD (bovine viral diarrhoea) and Leptospirosis started in 2015 on the breeding herd.
  • Youngstock now get an intranasal vaccine for pneumonia strains (bovine respiratory syncytial virus and Parainfluenza 3).
  • Autumn-born calves get vaccinated a week before housing at about two months old, while spring-born calves get vaccinated around weaning at six-to-seven months.

2. Housing

  • Alternating vented centre tiles were removed from store and cow sheds with an angle grinder to reduce trapped moisture and improve ventilation by assisting the stack effect.
  • Six side panels were taken off to open up the store shed. This has also improved ventilation and allows the wind, when present, to remove stale air from the shed.

3. Creep feeding and weaning

  • Creep feed has been added to the system to grow bull calves faster and help wean heifers with less of a growth check.
  • Once calves are tagged and calving is over, calves are split into bulls and heifers. A 16% crude protein beef pellet is fed ad-lib to bulls from two months old and given to heifers a month either side of weaning, with quantities dependent on grass availability.
  • This prepares spring-born calves for the indoor diet and grows calves when they are young and at their most efficient in terms of feed conversion ratio (FCR).
  • Calves are weaned at least one week after intranasal vaccinations are administered to give the vaccine more chance to work.
  • Spring-born calves are then moved to a different part of the farm away from the cows to settle for four days on creep and grazing before being housed.

4. Colostrum and calving

  • A mineralised cow nut is given, built up to 1-2kg a cow/day one month before calving to help colostrum production.
  • Slow or groggy calves are put in a sick bay and checked more often. Cows are moved into a cubicle and the calf is helped to suckle.

5. Hygiene

  • Opening up shed roofs has increased rainfall getting on straw directly under central vents. The farm uses its home-grown straw to good effect by bedding every day with copious amounts of straw in the winter.
  • Bedding is also kept cleaner by switching from feeding silage inside the shed to feeding in a cradle outside the shed. Cattle often defecate as they eat and this keeps bedding cleaner for longer.

6. Health screening

  • Ten bulling heifers are bought into each calving block from Melton Mowbray or Skipton. Since 2015, these animals have been health screened and quarantined.
  • All heifers are blood tested for BVD, Johne’s and Leptospirosis and are kept separate on the farm’s finishing unit for at least two months and normally three months.
  • If anything starts looking ill, it can be moved into the finishing yard and taken out of the herd.

How the system at Townsend Farm works

The Richardsons operate two 45-cow calving blocks, each calving in 12 weeks.

Spring calvers are bulled from 1 May and calve from 1 February, while autumn calvers are bulled from 1 December and calve from 1 September.

Last year, calf sales amounted to 85% of the cows put to the bull in the autumn herd and 88% in the spring herd.  

An Angus bull is used on the heifers, with two Limousins serving 25 cows each and a small herd of Longhorn-cross cattle served by a Longhorn bull to graze extensive low-input river meadows.

Bulls are kept entire and sold on contract to Dunbia hitting 400-420kg carcasses on mostly U-grades with 4L and 3 fat covers at 13-14 months.

The home farm of Cotterstock Lodge is used as the breeding farm.

Two miles away, a finishing unit with a mill-and-mix machine is used to finish cattle.

Bulls are finished on an ad-lib ration of 3kg of rolled barley, 1kg of a bought-in 18% crude protein pellet and 1kg of sugar beet pulp and barley straw, which costs £2 a head/day or £360 a bull over a typical finishing period.  

Bedding and feed are administered by hand, meaning machinery is minimised and cows are kept in a low-stress environment.

Heifers are finished on ad-lib silage and receive the bull ration after 18 months of age.

Only heifers from dairy-cross mothers are retained. Heifers are bred to calve at about 24 months.

Healthcare costs in 2018

  • Cow health budget BVD, Leptospira vaccine, one wormer and one fluke = £10.12 a cow/year
  • Calf budget Pneumonia vaccine (£7.20 a calf) and one wormer dose (£1.50 a calf) = £8.70/year