A new database that enables farms to record, monitor and benchmark their antibiotics use has been developed by representatives from across the ruminant sector.
Medicine Hub is available now and is free for farmers and vets to use. It is hosted by AHDB, which funded its build.
Farmers Weekly spoke to farmers, vets and representatives from AHDB and the supply chain to find out why and how farmers should use it.
Where has the concept come from?
Pressure has been on the livestock sector to use antibiotics more responsibly for some time.
The industry has embraced this challenge and surpassed most of the targets previously set by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (Ruma) Alliance for reducing antimicrobial use.
It has also increased uptake of vaccination and other preventative measures of ill health.
However, the Ruma Targets Task Force Report (PDF), published in November 2020, showed that monitoring antibiotics usage in the ruminant sector was not fully possible, due to a lack of data.
Farmers, vets and industry representatives on the Targets Task Force decided a centralised database was needed.
It set the following data targets for uptake across dairy, beef and sheep sectors by 2024:
- 95% of UK dairy herds
- 50% of UK calf-rearing units
- 8,000 UK beef herds (10% of total herds)
- 8,000 UK sheep flocks (10% of total flocks).
AHDB has helped co-ordinate and fund development of Medicine Hub, but it is not an AHDB-driven initiative.
Sheep vet Fiona Lovatt, who has been on the Targets Task Force since its inception, believes this is the sheep sector’s “one chance to get a difficult job done” and create a national picture of antibiotics usage.
Is it compulsory to enter information to Medicine Hub?
Use of Medicine Hub is not currently requested by the government or Red Tractor, so it remains voluntary.
Red Tractor does, however, require members of its pork scheme to upload data to AHDB Pork’s electronic medicine book (eMB-Pigs), which was launched in 2016.
AHDB’s head of animal health and welfare, Mandy Nevel, says: “We are seeing some retailers already requesting producers to enter data on Medicine Hub, so I think it is inevitable that other retailers will do the same.”
Tesco is one of those retailers.
Tesco’s agricultural manager for dairy and beef, Tom Atkins, says: “We’re strong supporters of Medicine Hub and we’ve encouraged all of our Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG) farmers to use it.
“By reporting their usage, TSDG farmers are helping to drive industry change in the responsible use and reduction of antibiotics.”
How will it benefit farmers?
ABP Food Group’s technical and sustainability director, Dean Holroyd, believes it is key that the ruminant sector can provide evidence to consumers for the claims it makes around low medicines usage.
“Organisations like Ruma have done a fantastic job in leading the way in antibiotics stewardship in many sectors, but the very large ruminant sectors are clearly lagging behind,” he says.
“Those sectors are inherently very low users, so it is not an area of focus. But we can’t actually prove it and, sooner or later, we will be challenged on that.”
Mr Holroyd says having a central system up and running should hopefully make knee-jerk responses in the supply chain less likely.
“The consumer pressure and focus on antibiotics will come back, and having an antibiotics reporting system should avoid a fragmented response with processors and retailers doing their own thing.
“I can’t guarantee that, but it should take away the need for us to do our own thing.”
Northamptonshire beef producer Mark Jelley is using Medicine Hub and wants other farmers to get on board “for the greater good, as well as their own personal benefit”.
“We need to protect our industry’s reputation for selling abroad. We can’t wait to be told to do it by a supermarket or Red Tractor,” he says.
“The EU is moving at quite a pace on antibiotics, and my suspicion is that we run the risk of trade repercussions if we can’t demonstrate we are using them responsibly.”
How can farmers start using it?
AHDB says the best way for farmers to begin using Medicine Hub is to contact their vet.
“We’re encouraging farmers to speak to their vets about it and for vets to look into how best to upload data, depending on the software package their practice uses,” says Dr Nevel.
“Vets are going to be absolutely key to this because producers are going to be best off looking at the information within the hub alongside their vet.”
Vet training has been provided at recent industry events, but training videos, guidance notes and a helpline are all accessible via Medicine Hub.
How secure will data be?
Farmers will retain full control over their data. They have to grant permission to their vet to upload data on their behalf.
Data are anonymous, and an aggregated national figure for each production system will be produced annually.
Production systems will be categorised by type, for example, suckler or calf rearer, and the lifetime of animals reared on the farm.
Once there are two years of data available, producers will be able to see how they benchmark against producers of a similar system. It will also be possible for farmers to review their own use year on year.
Will Medicine Hub integrate with other herd or flock management software, which may already contain medicines usage information?
AHDB is keen to connect Medicine Hub with other software programs, but says software providers need to see farmer demand demonstrated to deem it worthwhile integrating with Medicine Hub.
The database has been built with capacity to integrate with other programs, to avoid duplication of data entry for farmers.
Farmer View: James Yeatman, Pulham, Dorset
James Yeatman, who milks 400 cows, is passionate about keeping antibiotics usage as low as possible in his autumn-calving herd.
As a Tesco supplier, he has already worked with his vet to get the farm’s data onto Medicine Hub.
Having needed antibiotics himself when hit with pneumonia, and seen how critical they were to a family member who contracted Lyme Disease, he says they should not be taken for granted.
“I think some farmers will be reticent about sharing their information, but this is not about pinpointing bad offenders,” he says.
“I think we should be proud of what the dairy industry has done. Medicine Hub is a potentially useful tool to show where we’re at.
“From a farmer point of view, I do very little other than giving the vets ‘the OK’. Nobody has access to our individual results, but we can view them and see our position within the vet practice,” he adds.