As the introduction of a new EU-wide veterinary medicine regulation gets closer, assistant CellCheck programme manager from Animal Health Ireland (AHI), and vet, Michelle McGrath, talks to Agriland about the most effective way for dairy farmers to transition from a system where antibiotics are easily available – and used – to one where they will be restricted. And, she makes a strong case for why milk recording will be the farmer’s best friend in this new era for Irish agriculture.

The EU Regulation on Veterinary Medicinal Products 2019/6 comes into effect this Friday, January 28.

On a practical level for all farmers, the regulation will – among other things – see an end to the prophylactic use of antibiotics to prevent illness and keep animals healthy.

And, it will help to ensure that better animal husbandry, better hygiene and better management practices take the place of those antibiotics.

Cultural change

Culturally, the use of antibiotics in Irish dairy farming has been a safety net. Blanket dry-cow therapy, for example, took the ‘just-in-case’ approach, and it worked, generally speaking.

It won’t be a feature of future farming, however, as antimicrobial resistance has become a major issue.

But this significant change to Irish dairy farming – a more restricted approach to antibiotic usage – offers farmers a great opportunity to find out valuable information about their herd that will, ultimately, mean that fewer antibiotics are required – or if they are, they are targetting the right animals and the right diseases.

While there will be challenges ahead, there are things that farmers can start doing now to make those challenges more manageable later in the year when they become more apparent.

Milk recording

“If you are not milk recording, you should start now,” Michelle says.

AHI recommends that milk recording is carried out six times per year but if farmers who are not yet recording could even get one done in 2022, it would be a positive move, she says.

Approximately 51% of Irish dairy cows are milk recorded currently, a figure that has risen recently but one that still lags behind other European countries, some of which are at 90%.

Milk recording is not just about the milk and its cell counts, Michelle says. Knowledge is power and there is an abundance of information available from milk recording that can create a powerful and very valuable story about your herd.

“A lot of people don’t read the records, which have a lot of information in them,” Michelle says.

As well as identifying high somatic cell count (SCC) cows, and the more efficient cows, the records can also inform about recent infections and chronic cows, for example.

“But a lot of people aren’t familiar with those records, so we are encouraging farmers to speak to their advisers, their vets, and the milk-recording organisations, because they will be able to go through the records with you. 

Another important piece of advice about milk recording is that you need to do it as early as you can post-calving.

Again, this is about gleaning as much information as possible, as early as possible, about the herd.

ornua ppi

“Sometimes farmers will wait until all the cows have calved but, really, it needs to be done within the first 30 days after calving because you can get much more information about the dry period, and if they picked up any infection during that time.

Did you know?
Bacteria need iron to grow. There is not enough iron in a dry udder to facilitate bacterial growth. When milking recommences, the iron comes back and the bacteria begin to multiply.

“The earlier you record, you will get a good idea about whether you are dealing with environmental or contagious bacteria,” explains Michelle.

Environmental bacteria are from the environment and related to hygiene in the sheds, the passageways, etc. Contagious bacteria would be spread during the milking – from chronic cows, from milkers’ gloves, for example.

The new veterinary medicine regulation means that antibiotics can only be prescribed by a vet if an infection has been identified in an individual animal.

Prophylactic treatment will be a thing of the past, and metaphylactic treatment will only be permitted under exceptional circumstances.

Milk recording can provide the necessary information that vets require so there is a little concern that not more farmers are engaged in it, Michelle says.

“It is a concern because the new rules are looking for individual cow information for the vets to be able to prescribe the antibiotics and, really, milk recording is the best means of getting that individual cow information, so if you don’t have that, then it is going to be very hard for the vets to prescribe.”

Cost of not recording

Money talks, as they say, and there is a significant financial incentive to milk recording.

Michelle explains:

“If farmers reduced the SCC from 300,000 to 200,000 in a 94-cow herd, for example, then they’ll have nearly €7,000 profit, and that is doubled if you reduce from 400,000 to 200,000 SCC. 

“I think, sometimes, people aren’t aware of just how much a high cell count is costing them and, often, people don’t see all the costs either. 

drying off

“If a cow has a high cell count, she is probably sub-clinical. She is not showing the disease, so you are not treating her, and she is not milking as well as she should be. So you could be penalised and losing a bonus, and then you may end up having to cull her. So there are lots of costs involved.”

Remember – tell your vet!
When you milk record, be sure to tell your vet so they can go through the records and monitor them. If you are having issues, then they will know about them early on and a plan can be put in place. 

Clinical cases and milk sampling

Milk recording can also inform farmers of clinical cases within the herd. This is something that is not routinely picked up on currently, but AHI is encouraging farmers to start.

“This is something that is very important at drying off; if there is a clinical case, then that cow will need an antibiotic, but if you don’t know which cow it is, then it is risky” says Michelle.

Sampling those clinical cases before treatment, however, is highly recommended as it helps to create a pathogen profile of the herd which can inform farmers of the diseases present and the antibiotics that will be effective – or more importantly, if any are showing resistance.

“This way, you will know what antibiotics are best suited for your herd and if there is any resistance on the farm. This is all about building information early in the year. The more information that farmers have, the less they will have to worry about when it comes to drying off.”

How does sampling work? 

A mixture of young and old cow samples must be taken which, when analysed in a lab, can yield the pathogen/bug profile of the herd, Michelle explains.

“The lab can do a culture on it to see if there is any bacteria present and they will test those bacteria against certain antibiotics and that will show the antibiotics that will work, or those that might be resistant.

“So, it is really good to have that information – you will get better results when you are using the right drugs,” says Michelle.

Michelle says that some farmers tend to take a milk sample at the end of lactation, out of the bulk tank, but this is useless.

“This is because there can be a lot of contamination in that, and there can be bacteria present through the milk pipes. So you won’t be able to tell if the sample has been contaminated after the cow, or within the cow, so you need to take that sample directly from the cow.”

How to take a sample
1. First, you must clean and sterilise the teat.
2. Do a few draws of the teat onto the ground, then draw about 15ml into a bottle. Special bottles are available from your vet for the sample.
3. Send to the lab – talk to your adviser or vet about this.
4. Samples can be frozen for up to three months and sent to the lab at a later stage when you have a number of samples collected.

“We understand the worry that is out there but if farmers work with their advisers and vets – if they are having mastitis problems, for example, then now is the time to get them under control before the drying off period when these [new rules] will be felt more,” she says.

As soon as farmers integrate the above into their dairy routine they can start to feel more confident about life beyond these new rules.

“The more information you have the more confident you will be about using fewer antibiotics,” Michelle says.