Netherlands cuts antibiotic use by 50% and improves cow environment

Holland is on target to reduce its antibiotic use across the livestock sector by 50% by next year, but how are they driving a reduction in dairy herds? Aly Balsom visits a Dutch producer to find out

When it comes to encouraging responsible antibiotic use, the Dutch government has taken the attitude that nothing incentivises change more than the promise of a hefty fine.

After concerns were raised by European policy makers and the wider media over the link between antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance in humans, Holland decided to takes its own stance, and at the start of the year introduced penalties for failing to reduce antibiotic use on farm.

All livestock producers must now record antibiotic use and demonstrate how they are reducing their use across their business – failure to do so could result in a fine.

For dairy producers Willem and Bianca van den Brink from Zeewolde, Holland, a reduction in antibiotic use has been a consequence of erecting a new, “cow focused” building. This, as well as adhering to strict protocols, has resulted in a drop in antibiotic use in the milking cows from 10.5 doses a cow a year to 6.6 doses a cow a year since 2011.

Speaking to Farmers Weekly as part of the Veepro Holland Dairy Tour, Mrs van den Brink explained: “When we designed the new shed, we wanted something that was good for the farmer and good for the cow. We wanted a completely new system with good ventilation and cow flow.”

Vet Annemiek Veenkamp from vet practice Dierenartsenpraktijk Flevoland, said the main reason for a reduction in antibiotic use at the van den Brink’s had been improvements to cow environment.

“Sand cubicles, better ventilation, more space a cow and improved transition cow management has all helped improve cow health,” she said.

Environmental mastitis had been a problem in the old shed where cows were housed on paper or compost. However, this has been one area where big improvements have been seen.

“In 2011 this herd had 24 cases of mastitis for every 200 cows, and since 2010 antibiotic use for mastitis treatment has dropped from 2.6 doses a cow a year to 0.8 doses,” explained Mrs Veenkamp.

In the past, teats were post-sprayed at milking. Now, however, because cows are cleaner, parlour routine is basic with teats cleaned with a dry towel prior to milking and no pre-or post spraying.

Cows that are close to calving are now housed in straw pens and moved to a second pen to calve, then in to a fresh cow pen for two weeks, before they join the main herd.

According to Mrs Veenkamp, most dairy producers could see the most improvements to mastitis rates by looking at dry cow management. She predicted that dry cow therapy was likely to be the main area to come under scrutiny in the coming years.

“At the moment, all cows in Holland are given antibiotics at drying off for the prevention of infection. However this idea is changing. I think in 2013 only cows with infection or high SCC will be allowed to have antibiotic treatment at drying off.”

Dutch strategy

As part of the current Dutch policy, all producers must record antibiotic use a cow a year. This information is collated in a central recording system know as ‘Medi Rund’, with herds ranked on a traffic light system and antibiotic use split out according to area of treatment:

• Red light: 12 doses a cow a year – the farmer and vet must make an action plan straight away to address antibiotic use

• Amber light: eight doses a cow a year – there must be a plan of action in place, but the plan is not as strict as if the farm is on a red light

• Green light: target of 4.6 doses a cow a year.

Mrs Veenkamp explained how the Dutch policy on antibiotic use places an equal responsibility on the heads of both the farmer and vet.

“If a farmer buys lots of antibiotics, the vet gets criticised and the vet has to be seen to be making a plan of action,” she said. “And as of 27 June, both farmers and vets can be fined for not complying.”

Vets have to put together farm specific protocols for treatment for individual diseases. For example, this could include plans for treating mastitis, uterine infections, lameness and pain/fever.

Mrs Veenkamp explained: “The protocols will detail what drugs need to be used, how much, for how long and when. I can only supply specific antibiotics when they are identified on the farm protocols. For any other antibiotics, I have to see the cow before prescribing.”

Because recording has only been implemented this year, the national level of antibiotic use is not yet known. However, for Mrs Veenkamp’s practice, which covers 140 dairy farms, antibiotic use is variable. The worst farms in 2011 had 15.4 doses a cow a year, while the best had 1.7.

Van de Brink – Farm Facts

• Started with 80 cows in 1983, now at 300 cows

• Twice a day milking

• 10,000 litres a cow a year

• Put up new “cow focused” building last year

Since putting up a new cow shed last year:

• Yields have increased from 27.8kg a cow a day to 32kg

• Somatic cell counts have dropped from 250-300,000 cells/ml to 154,000 cells/ml

• Mastitis incidence: 12 cases for every 100 cows

• Overall antibiotic use in milking cows has dropped from 10.5 doses a cow a year in 2010 to 6.6 in 2011

• Antibiotic use in treatment of mastitis has reduced from 2.6 doses a cow a year in 2010 to 0.8 does in 2011

• Antibiotic use in dry cows was 3.3 doses a cow a year in 2010 and is now 2.2 in 2011

• Antibiotic use for the treatment of sick cows had dropped from 4.2 to 3.1 doses a cow a year.

Recording of antibiotic use in dairy herds in Holland:

• Doses of antibiotic a cow a year must be recorded

• Information is stored in a central database

• Both the vet and farmer are equally responsible and both can be fined for not making positive steps to reduce antibiotic use.

Breeding index provides insight into foot and health

 Dutch producers are able to select cattle for foot health thanks to the introduction of specific breeding index two years ago.

All data on foot health and treatments are collected by registered cattle foot trimmers and used to formulate the Foot Health Index.

Joost Klein Herenbrink of breeding company CRV explained that the index had been introduced in response to farmers selecting for longevity.

“A lot of farmers are looking for breeding values that are good for feet and legs. However we experienced cases where stock had good feet and leg scored but low longevity. The question was, why?

“After collecting data for foot health, we found the reason was poor hoof quality.

“The conclusion was drawn that longevity was linked to hoof quality – and longevity is by far the most important trait,” said Mr Herenbrink.

He explained how one of the industry’s key aims was to improve sustainability, and to do so, more information on claw health was needed.

“We want to improve breeding values for claw health and udder health for example. To do so we need more data, so we are looking to pay farmers for supplying information.”

As of 1 September, CRV will reward dairy farmers that contribute in the collection of data on hoof health. The farmers will receive a fee for delivering hoof health data from daughters from InSire bulls and MRI testing bulls.

Show cows subject to screening

Any dairy cow presented for showing at the All Holland Dairy Show can be subject to ultrasound testing if suspicions over manipulation arise.

For the last 10 years, the show vet can undertake udder ultrasounding where necessary. Eric Lievense from Belgium breeding company VRV, said the move had been driven by breed societies and show organisers to stamp out manipulation.

“Any show exhibitor caught manipulating the udder will be excluded from the show, as well as subsequent events,” he said.

“In general, people don’t do it as they know there is the potential for ultrasounding.”

•  How to monitor and stamp out show manipulation is a big topic up for discussion in the UK at present. Find out what people think and join in the debate at