Matching antibiotics to a specific health problem rather than treating every condition with a single product is resulting in improved recovery rates at Barrowvale Farm, Bath.
Philip Langley, who farms in partnership with his brother Richard and parents Ray and Cheri, says health planning with a view to using medicines responsibly has transformed the farm’s approach to treating livestock.
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Common health issues and the recommended treatment for each are detailed in a health planning document produced for the Langleys by their vet at the Shepton Vet Group.
This document is reviewed regularly to take into account health changes within the herd and any new advice on medications.
When an animal needs treating, the Langleys record the symptoms of the illness in this document and the treatment and medication used.
“We can refer back to this information and it means that anyone could come in and see exactly what approach we took with certain conditions,” Mr Langley explains.
Mr Langley no longer takes a blanket approach to medication and uses specific antibiotics for specific conditions.
“In the past we would perhaps have used one antibiotic for a variety of health issues, but I now look at which antibiotics are most appropriate for a condition. It is a much more effective approach,” he explains.
This system has also resulted in fewer vet visits. “In the past I would quite often have called the vet out if I had a problem with a cow just to get some advice on which medication to use. I no longer need to do that, because we have a series of laminated charts provided by our practice that explain the different products and their uses.”
The results he achieves from the medications used are better, too. “Herd health isn’t necessarily any better than it was before, but when we do get problems with the animals they tend to get better more quickly because we are matching the right medication to the problem.
“We haven’t really changed what we do, we just have a more targeted approach to health problems. For instance, when there is a foot problem I now know there isn’t one antibiotic to suit every foot condition. There is an antibiotic for an infected ulcer and another for foul in the foot. Health planning has changed my approach in that respect.”
The Langleys run a herd of 200 Holstein Friesians, which calve year-round. They have routine vet visits every two weeks and one of the issues scrutinised during these visits is medicine use.
Regular contact means their vet understands the farm’s system, which assists when the herd health plan and treatment protocols are formulated.
“It is about sitting down and having a sensible conversation to work out together what medication is best to use, what disease prevention measures we need to take on the farm and which vaccinations are most appropriate to our situation,” says Mr Langley.
Protocols detail the plan of action for specific conditions. “In the case of mastitis we would start with an intramammary antibiotic tube and when the case is severe follow this with an antibiotic injection and an anti-inflammatory for pain relief,” he says.
Vet Michael Head of the Shepton Vet Group says health planning can help promote responsible medicine use because specific diseases and their causal agents can be discussed with the farmer and related to the best medicine choice. Vaccination and treatment schedules are examined during this process.
Farmer clients at the Shepton Vet Group are encouraged to attend a medicines course focusing on the rationale of when to use and when not to use antibiotics. Mr Langley felt this course was very beneficial.
“It was a very worthwhile exercise, it gave me a much better understanding of why we need to be more responsible in the way we use medicine in agriculture.”
Farmers should work with their vet on health planning by measuring outcomes such as disease incidences and culling and by setting realistic targets, advises Mr Head. “We take a team approach with relevant members of staff and others involved on the farm, such as a nutritionist,” he says.
Farmers are educated on the importance of taking an animal’s temperature to determine whether an infection is present and on the correct storage and use of medicines.
“Health planning will help farmers understand the importance of a course of treatment and its relationship with medicine resistance,” says Mr Head.
“It is also important to understand the significance of painkillers and anti-inflammatory treatments in the welfare and promotion of a speedy return to health and production.”
The Langleys sell their milk to Tesco and that contract requires them to notify the company of every cow treated with third- and fourth-generation antibiotics.
Each cow represents a case and the numbers are reported every second month. The company adds this information to its database and monitors the results.
Mr Langley suggests it is in a farm’s interest to take a responsible approach to antibiotics use to reduce the likelihood of developing resistance in the herd.
“When we use the wrong antibiotics for the wrong things we don’t get the most out of the product for our cows and it may well lead to a bit of resistance,” he says.
Farmers also have a responsibility to do what they can to safeguard the future effectiveness of antibiotics in humans, he adds.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean ruling out third- and fourth-generation antibiotics – which are seen as critically important in human medicine – altogether in livestock when these products are the most effective in treating specific conditions.
“We use a particular dry cow tube which is a third-generation antibiotic because this is what works best in the herd.
“As long as the product has been tested and is the most effective on the farm I think we should continue to use it, but what we shouldn’t be doing is taking a blanket use approach without first establishing what the problem is,” says Mr Langley.
He believes one of the positive outcomes of health planning for responsible medicine use is vets are now more aware of what they are prescribing and farmers use products that are best for their cows.