Science - April 15, 2010

Farming without antibiotics

Gerda Verburg, the minister for Agriculture, and Ab Klink, the minister for Health, want the use of antibiotics in livestock farming to be cut by half by 2013. That is possible, says ASG researcher Gidi Smolders, who has a good overview of antibiotics use in organic dairy farming.

'Dairy farmers are not major consumers of antibiotics - they account for only ten per cent of total consumption in livestock farming. However, there are huge differences within the sector. Many conventional dairy farmers make frequent use of antibiotics to treat udder infections. I keep track of antibiotics consumption at more than one hundred organic dairy farms. They are not allowed to use antibiotics anyway for the prevention of animal diseases.
'Ten of those farms no longer use any antibiotics at all. If you are going to get rid of antibiotics, you need to prevent the animals from getting sick. Which in turn means the farmer has to change his management system. You can opt for cows with a slightly lower yield. Those cows often have more resistance than cows that exhaust themselves providing more milk. In addition, the feed needs to contain enough minerals, the housing should be of good quality and the farmer shouldn't be under stress. Farmers under stress are more likely to resort to medicines.  I know dairy farmers, even conventional dairy farmers, who have not used any antibiotics for eight years. At first they try alternative products, such as herbal remedies and homeopathy, as a replacement for the antibiotics. Then they discover that changing their management system works better.'
A recent study by Berenschot of antibiotics use in intensive livestock farming showed that five per cent of the vets prescribed eighty per cent of the antibiotics. 'In dairy farming there are far more local vets prescribing antibiotics. The phenomenon of 'motorway vets' supplying all of the Netherlands is very rare in this sector. Antibiotics are cheap, it's legal and it's easy to use them on the farm. But you can make a turnaround by implementing a quality assurance policy.'

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