Farmer Field School approach halves antibiotic use in dairy cattle

The Farmer Field School approach, which has halved antibiotic use in Danish dairy cattle, is the focus of our latest report in the College Farm Focus initiative, jointly run by Farmers Weekly, RASE and Landex, the umbrella organisation for land-based life-long learning in the UK.

Farmer Field Schools have been used in many parts of the world as a means of improving farming systems, explains Stephen Roderick from Duchy College’s RBS Organic Studies Centre.

A Danish organic farming specialist, who has been using the approach with dairy farmers as part of the health planning process, recently visited Duchy College.

Her approach could benefit producers in the south west, claims Dr Roderick.

Dr Mette Vaarst, from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, visited Duchy’s Rural Business School as part of a collaborative EU research project in which the College’s Organic Studies Centre is the English partner organisation.

The part DEFRA-funded project, AniPlan, is aimed at developing animal health and welfare planning for the organic sector, but also has significant relevance to all livestock producers interested in reducing dependence on veterinary medicines while maintaining the highest welfare standards within their herds and flocks. Other project partners include research institutes from Denmark, Norway, Wales, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

While in Cornwall, Dr Vaarst addressed a meeting of organic dairy farmers on the results of her research using a Farmer Field School approach – the so-called Stable Schools – to reduce veterinary medicine use on organic farms in Denmark.

This well-established approach to problem solving is widespread in many developing countries, involving a process whereby farmers meet regularly together to discuss technical problems on each others farms and use their own knowledge and experience to share and solve the problem. In some respects, the approach has similarities to that of the Grassland Challenge project.

Dr Vaarst, who is an international authority on the health and welfare of organically managed farm animals, encountered the approach while working with smallholder farmers in Uganda. Having been approached by the Danish organic milk co-operative, Thise, to research the potential for reducing antibiotic use in their members’ herds, she saw an opportunity to adapt and apply the FFS technique to Danish conditions.

Over a period of one year, four farmer groups, each consisting of approximately six farmers, set to task. Each month, each group met on a different farm to discuss a particular problem that had been identified by the host farmer.

Through a process of discussion and examination of farm records, aided by the presence of a facilitator, the groups were successful in reducing antibiotic usage by approximately 50%, with no discernible negative impact on health and welfare and a tangible improvement in the farm environment.

As part of Duchy College’s involvement in the AniPlan project, it is intended that a similar pilot farmer group be set up in the south-west. Perhaps this proven approach to health planning could provide a means by which farmers in the south west could work together to make health plans a useful tool with real benefits rather than a bureaucratic task.