Recent weeks have been marked by the publication of numerous reports, all confirming that antibiotic usage levels on livestock farms in the UK and Ireland are falling. This is good news for farmers and consumers in equal measure.

Driving this trend is a growing awareness at farm level that improving the fundamental health standards of herds and flocks will deliver lifetime improvements in animal performance without the use of antibiotics in the first place.

Veterinary surgeons are also playing their part to this end by encouraging the use of such practices as selective dry cow therapy.

But there is so much more that can be done right now to further reduce the level of antibiotic usage within production agriculture.

Dairy sector

Of all the sectors within Irish agriculture, dairy is the one where immediate improvements can be secured. But all of this comes back to the fundamental question – do we know that we have a problem in the first place?

Identifying cases of clinical mastitis is a pretty straightforward matter. Curds will be evident and the affected quarter or quarters will be sore to touch. But what about the more pervasive issue of high cell counts?

This issue, more than any other, impacts on the price a farmer gets for his or her milk. And, yes, the bulk tank figure confirms that there is a problem on the farm – but how to find the problem cows?

Regular milk recording provides significant light on this matter. For their part, dairy farmers with robotic milking systems can take this to the next level as they are getting ‘real time’ information on the conductivity – and by subsequent deduction – the cell count status of the milk produced by each cow in the herd.

It goes without saying that I would urge every dairy farmer in Ireland to commit to regular milk recording. And, given this apparent need, I would like to congratulate Kerry Group for deciding to support all its milk suppliers in this regard.

Management decisions taken by farmers will only be as good as the information available to them.

Antibiotic usage research

Further good news comes in the form of research organisations committing to delve more deeply into the impact antibiotic usage is having on our farms.

An excellent example of this is the recent announcement by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) to further explore the links between current mastitis control practices and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Complementing research of this nature, has been the investment put in by numerous private sector companies.

These businesses are committing their resources, time and expertise in communicating the benefits of regular milk recording and the downsides of AMR.

A case in point was the recent webinar hosted by AHV founder and veterinarian Dr. Gertjan Streefland.

The event provided the 140 farmers and dairy industry representatives taking part with an opportunity to discuss the fundamentals of AMR; the reasons why certain bacteria are resistant to an animal’s immune system; how lack of immunity impacts on animals; and what are the financial risks associated with AMR.

Spring calving

The spring calving season is now upon us. It represents a major stress period for the Irish dairy industry, affecting cows and farmers in equal measure.

Clinical mastitis cases and associated increases in cell count levels will, no doubt, spike over the coming weeks.

Other health challenges that will appear include: metabolic disorders; the entire gamut of udder health issues; and calving-related challenges. Also, the health and welfare of newborn calves must never be overlooked.

It’s a well accepted principle that ‘applied pressure’ is the greatest stimulus for change within any system. And where Ireland’s dairy farmers are concerned, January 1, 2022 will see the introduction of real change where the use of antibiotics within the milk sector is concerned.

Put simply, the use of antibiotics will not be allowed for preventative purposes beyond that date. And rightly so!