Antibiotic-Creep in Farming

The antibiotic story is, like everything about livestock farming, pretty complicated. Animals get sick, sure even organic ones, but there is growing evidence that the modern-day, very high usage in farming is likely to be a contributing factor in the upsurge in cases of antibiotic resistance in people. Imagine a world where antibiotic treatments no longer worked? It’s unthinkable! Yet it is now very possible.

The worrying thing about the growing antibiotic use in farming is how, over a fairly short period of time, it has become ‘the norm’.

Many of my neighbours, friends and relatives are dairy farmers.  They are good farmers. Many of them are more natural stocks-people than I am.  Most are better at running their businesses.  But … they have got sucked in to the ‘bigger is better’ mantra, and it is difficult to rewind.

Many have expanded their herds at least 3 fold over the past 5 years. But the use of antibiotics has grown by much, much more. 

One example of the increase in use of antibiotics is in calf rearing.  As well as having 3 times as many cows to milk, they now have 3 times as many calves to look after.  Most family farms can find the resources to bucket rear 150 calves, but once you get over about 250 calves, it is just out of the question.

So that’s where the first piece of technology comes in - the automatic calf feeder. This is a very clever bit of kit that can dish out the formula milk to each calf in a group of, say, 40, in small feeds over the course of a day using electronic ID-based technology. Calves should do well on this system because it replicates what would happen if the calf was with its mother – being fed little-and-often. All well and good, you might think.

There is a slight problem. The automatic calf feeding system seems to result in much higher incidence of pneumonia in the calves.  It is probably caused by the intensity of the calves in the shed resulting in damper bedding.  It is maybe that when you no longer give individual attention twice a day that you don’t spot the problem early enough.  But for good stocks-people, as they are, this is distressing.  But a phone call to the machine suppliers to see how they might suggest it be sorted and a solution is suggested. Go to your vet, get a prescription and we will provide you with a powder you just add to the formula milk.

Result! Pneumonia in the calves has virtually disappeared. The ‘magic powder’ is still added to the milk every day. It is, of course, an antibiotic. And quickly the farmer goes from feeling uncomfortable about routine antibiotics being used to being inured to it. Giving antibiotic to calves can also help them grow faster but there are some downsides. For example, the calf’s immune system is not being allowed to develop in response to disease challenge which can mean the calf is less able to fight diseases in the future, resulting in a greater dependency on antibiotic. There is more antibiotic in the animals and in the vicinity of these animals on the farm adding to the risk of bugs developing resistance to that antibiotic and passing that resistance on to other bug species that in turn could infect humans – this has been shown to happen.

Unfortunately the problem hasn’t been solved – just plastered over. Sadly there is little incentive for a long term solution to be found because the supplier of the automatic feeder has a satisfied customer and a bit of extra income from the ‘white powder’ sales, the vet has a prescription fee for 2 minutes of their time and the farmer has ‘healthy’ calves.

We just allowed the system to crank up the use of antibiotic another peg with hardly a blink. This is not sustainable, but it doesn’t have to be this way.   Here's an earlier blog about how we improved our calf health and greatly reduced our usage of antibiotics

Other countries are beginning to address the problem.  The UK needs to get serious about it.