Farmers need to get back to basics with skills which were heavily emphasised in bygone days to reduce antibiotic use, Northern Ireland’s chief vet Robert Huey has said.

Speaking at the annual agricultural symposium at Queen’s University Belfast, Huey said hygiene was a big topic of personal interest and said he had seen its positive effects in several studies on antibiotic use on farms in the region.

However, he added that it was an area many farmers had forgotten to pay special attention to.

‘A lost skill’

“Back in the pre-antibiotic era, hygiene was a topic on the veterinary curriculum – particularly in the Germanic schools. It was something seen as being very important,” he said.

“Today, we have translated ‘hygiene’ to mean ‘cleanliness’; but hygiene actually meant the early days of epidemiology and disease control – it wasn’t just about keeping things clean.

“With the loss of labour on farms, basic husbandry and keeping a farmyard clean are things we have lost with that.

“Hygiene around the farm is something we are forgetting about; that’s not how it was 40 years ago.

It’s not very sexy or exciting – a power-hose and a brush – but that, quality nutrition and vaccines are very important.

‘We have to rethink’

Huey added that the whole culture around antibiotics “needed rethinking” and said that some farmers had been demanding fourth generation antibiotics from vets unnecessarily.

“After surgery or before transporting, if the animals don’t look quite right, these are things in our profession that we have routinely done – it’s good veterinary medicine, we thought – to be treating these groups of animals with antibiotics.

“We have to rethink all these paradigms of good veterinary treatment – and we are doing it,” he said.

QUB agricultural symposium, antibiotic resistance

Huey used the example of Moy Park and recounted the radical changes the firm made.

He said the firm’s studies in high-standard birdhouses in Northern Ireland showed no difference in bird mortality rates when antibiotics were not used.

They discovered that the [mortality rate] curve was exactly the same as if they had used antimicrobials – they had been using them for years, but they didn’t need them.

“They didn’t need them because husbandry was good; the housing was good; the nutrition was good; the environment was good – everything was good,” he said.

The importance of clean water

Huey said access to clean drinking water also played a major role in the poultry firm’s move to reduce sickness – and therefore antibiotic use – and urged farmers in all sectors to pay closer attention to this area.

He added that, in many cases, housed animals have higher health statuses compared to outdoor counterparts.

“Their environment is being controlled – their access to potential pathogens is reduced, rather than bogging around a field where there are seagulls and all sorts of other things carrying around diseases,” he said, adding that many of Northern Ireland’s biggest pig farmers had been focusing on these key areas.

I was on a farm before Christmas – a 200-sow unit – and last year he used three bottles of [a particular antibiotic] over a year. That’s it – nothing in the feed; nothing anywhere else – and the pigs were healthy.

“My biggest problem is that when we get good data I don’t think GB will believe my pig data on antimicrobials because they have done so much work,” he said.