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Innovation for agriculture

Antibiotic resistance was the focus of the Innovation for Agriculture meeting in December

10 January 2018, at 10:08am

For those in large animal practice, Innovation for Agriculture (IfA) may be an influential information source for their clients. If the one-day conference on ‘practical approaches to reduce antibiotic use on dairy farms’ is typical of the 11 similar gatherings available during January and February for beef, sheep and dairy, the partnership involvement between veterinary knowledge and farmer implementation will be considerably enhanced.

On arrival, each delegate was made aware of four outcomes: we will go home 1. better informed about reducing antibiotic use on dairy farms, 2. with practical strategies to introduce on dairy farms, 3. in no doubt that changes for the better have to be introduced on all dairy farms, and 4. motivated to play our own parts in giving our children, and theirs, a realistic chance of avoiding the possibly fatal consequences of an antibiotic-resistant infection. David Gardner, CEO of IfA, explained that the project is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and a three-year programme is ongoing with planning and development in the areas of livestock and antibiotics, sensor technologies to offer data-driven dairy decisions and improvements in soil health and water management.

Aled Davies (PRUEX) gave an account of visits to many overseas livestock situations, which challenged his former understanding about bacteria and antibiotics. Aled did not know that antibiotics were ineffective against viruses, but he has caught up quickly with technical knowledge. One of his conclusions is that improvements introduced on-farm need to be communicated to consumers.

Professor Peter Borriello (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) explained the problem is global and requires a global response. Any antibiotic use could select resistant strains of bacteria, not just antibiotic misuse. The promotion of the need to complete a course of treatment is now challenged and alternatives to the use of antibiotics are the way forward. The O’Neill report highlighted that developing a new antibiotic is a high-risk financial venture with a global pressure to use less volume of product.

Infection control is the key issue in both humans and animals. The UK adopted a five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy which emphasised the need for a partnership programme on a voluntary basis. The usage of antibiotics in farming is falling more rapidly than forecast. As products are switched away from the critically-important antibiotics, it is expected that the total number of treatment courses will fall, but that the total volume of administration may rise as the older products require larger doses per animal. The UK is an international leader on the animal and human antimicrobial resistance issues.

Reduce, refine, replace

Dr Elizabeth Berry (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance) discussed the dairy sector voluntary targets on reducing, refining and replacing antibiotic use. An overall reduction of antibiotic use in all forms in the dairy sector is targeted with a specific reduction in the use of intramammaries at the end of lactation and during lactation, plus an increase in the use of teat sealants at drying off. The use of critically-important antibiotics, including 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins and uoroquinolones, is to be halved by 2020. The speaker stressed the need to avoid any negative impact on animal welfare, but antibiotic footbathing and feeding antibiotic-laden waste milk to cows are questionable practices. 

Dr Kristen Reyher (University of Bristol) explained that the college farm animal practice had demonstrated that production parameters, including fertility, udder health, mobility and culling rates, can be maintained and even substantially improved alongside a complete cessation in the use of critically-important antibiotics, as well as an overall reduction in the use of antibiotics on dairy farms. Collecting actual farm data has been illuminating for both researchers and farmers. Discussions with farmers and vets have shown that team working is essential, with trust between both parties.

In recognising that awareness alone does not lead to behaviour change, farmers identify and set the changes they can introduce and the performance often exceeds expectations. Farmer action lists need to be reviewed and reasons for uptake and difficulties identified and discussed. There are challenges for veterinary surgeons who ‘don’t want to be the vet who doesn’t prescribe and animal welfare is compromised’. There is a good farmer mindset, where additional treatments are seen as ‘doing the cow well’. Open on-farm discussions are highly relevant. It is realistic for a veterinary practice to aim to voluntarily eliminate the use of all highest priority critically-important antibiotics from dairy client herds by 2020.

Embracing technology

Tom Clarke (Synergy Farm Health) emphasised the need for data collection. Actual antibiotic treatment data is hard to obtain over a large number of farms with different recording systems. The DataVet project uses VetImpress and FarmImpress apps to capture farmer and vet antibiotic treatments, disease diagnosis and health data. The data are aligned with practice-level medicines sales data, cattle tracking system, cow identification and milk recording. Benchmarking of the information, with an individual farm report, allows effective discussions between vets and farmers. An assessment of antibiotic use across the practice shows there are still some herds with a high usage. There is a range of prescribing from individual vets, within a practice policy to reduce antibiotic usage. The speaker said that some farmers are ‘wed’ to their treatment regimes, but antibiotic stewardship plans involving discussion groups had resulted in half the practice herds no longer using critically-important antibiotics.

A panel discussion between Tom Clarke, Tim Downes (organic farmer), Nigel Underwood (Elanco) and Professor Mark Fielder (Kingston University) provided details of developments, intentions and workable systems. It was encouraging to hear that the concerns about antimicrobial resistance have led to ‘new money’ for the commercial development of diagnostics.

Richard Lloyd (IfA) outlined many of the sensor technologies and products that are currently available. Dairy farmers are aware of the direct costs of disease (vets, drugs, labour, discarded milk), but less aware of the indirect costs of loss of production, etc. With sensors, the farmer must learn to ‘trust the system’ with health and nutrition alerts available from mobile phones linked to sensors.

Aled Davies concluded the session by describing the elimination of bio lm that was protecting harmful bacteria, utilising other bacteria. A video showing udders and teats being sprayed with bacteria as an alternative to chemical teat spray and teat dip generated discussion. The speaker indicated that the sprayed bacteria acted by removing moisture from the teat, and that attacking the biofilm with bacteria reduces wetness in bedding and cleans away the internal sludge lining water pipes.

In conclusion, the chairman said it was a good sign that the industry was taking ownership of the antibiotic resistance issue and that it is worth giving new ideas and technologies a chance to prove themselves on-farm.