Antibiotic use in dairy and beef farming
According to the European Food Safety Authority, ”zero-grazing” dairy systems, where cows are kept indoors all year round, increase the risk of mastitis, foot problems and reproductive disorders, which are the main health problems in dairy cows that need antibiotic treatment. Genetic selection for high milk yield, which has increased from 4,100 litres per cow a year in 1975 to 7,900 litres today, is also positively correlated with these conditions.
The report finds that British beef cattle, which are often farmed relatively extensively, have much lower antibiotic use than more intensively farmed cattle and veal calves in some other European countries like the Netherlands, highlighting the need to avoid moves to greater intensification.
The information below has been taken from a new report from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. You can find the full report here.
In the UK, antibiotic use in cattle has generally been at a much lower level than in pigs and poultry. Mass medication with antibiotics is not used frequently in UK dairy or beef production, although it is widely used in some European countries with significant intensive veal farming industries.
Antibiotic use in British cattle tends to be higher in dairy production than in beef production, with mastitis, lameness/foot problems and uterine problems being the principal causes of antibiotic treatment .
Routine preventative antibiotic use does occur on dairy farms to prevent mastitis during the cow’s ‘dry’ period. A 2010/11 Defra survey found that 85% of non-organic farms used routine, non-selective antibiotic dry-cow therapy . The survey also found that each year approximately 30% of cows in a dairy herd develop mastitis, and 93% of farmers used antibiotics to treat mastitis.
Precise figures on antibiotic use in cattle are not available in most countries which, like the UK, predominately collect antibiotic sales data. Because many antibiotic products are sold for use in more than one species, it is not generally possible to say which species they are used in.
Sales data for the UK shows that, in 2015, 14 tonnes were sold for use in cattle only (compared with 300 tonnes sold in 2015 for use in pigs or poultry only), with a further 65 tonnes sold for use in more than one species. This means that total use in cattle was somewhere between 14 tonnes and 79 tonnes.
A more accurate estimate of use in cattle is provided by a survey of prescription data by 60 veterinary practices carried by Farmvet Systems Ltd using the VetIMPRESS software they created to help farmers and vets find evidence for improvements in animal health and welfare. Since there are approximately 300 veterinary practices dealing with cattle in the UK, this is a relatively representative sample.
The data collected by Farmvet Systems shows that antibiotic use in dairy farming is about 26 mg/kg. No fully reliable figures are available for beef cattle due to the fact that many farms with beef cattle also have sheep, and it isn’t possible to determine from the information held by veterinarians which animals the antibiotics have been used in. Nevertheless, it is well known that in the UK antibiotic use in beef cattle is much lower than in dairy cattle, so it is very likely that use in beef cattle is well below 26 mg/kg.
This level of use is actually low in comparison to other EU countries with species usage data. It is particularly low in comparison to the usage levels in the Netherlands. See Table 4 (page 16 of report).
The remarkable difference between the British and Dutch usage levels is due to the exceptionally high usage of antibiotics in Dutch veal/beef production, which is much more intensive than beef production in the UK. It provides very clear evidence that different ways of farming cattle result in large differences in antibiotic use.
The Netherlands has already implemented many initiatives aimed at reducing farm antibiotic use, such as banning routine preventative use (including banning blanket dry-cow therapy), setting reduction targets, collecting antibiotic-use data from each farm and benchmarking of farms and veterinary practices. These initiatives have led to a reduction of antibiotic use in veal calves of nearly 50% since 2007 , but despite these achievements use remains 20 to 40 times higher than in British beef cattle.
EFSA and the EMA recently stated that “In some farming systems, much reliance is placed on the routine use of antimicrobials for disease prevention or for the treatment of avoidable outbreaks of disease, such that these systems would be unsustainable in the absence of antimicrobials. The stress associated with intensive, indoor, large scale production may lead to an increased risk of livestock contracting disease” . EFSA and the EMA said that intensive white veal rearing, as practised in the Netherlands, was an example of such a system, and the data in Table 4 seem to confirm this.
Similarly, EFSA has stated that “The farming system by itself is a major factor determining the health problems of dairy cattle” .
Access to grazing
Systems in dairy farming vary considerably, from those which allow the cows access to pasture all year round, to those where they are housed for part of the year and to ‘zero-grazing’ systems where the cows are kept permanently indoors. In the UK, most dairy cows have access to pasture during the summer months, but increasingly cows are being kept indoors and large, zero-grazing herds are becoming more common in the UK and worldwide.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of health problems in such intensive systems is higher. According to a review carried out by the EFSA, “If dairy cows are not kept on pasture for parts of the year, i.e. they are permanently on a zerograzing system, there is an increased risk of lameness, hoof problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections” . Many of these infections are major causes of antibiotic treatments in dairy farming .
High productivity dairy cows and disease
For many years, dairy cows in Europe and the UK were bred mainly for yield. This is a major reason why the average annual yield for a dairy cow in the UK has increased from 4,100 litres in 1975 to 7,900 litres in 2014 . Some of the most productive herds are now producing in excess of 10,000 litres a year .
According to EFSA, genetic selection for high yield is a “major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows”. EFSA says that “The genetic component underlying milk yield has also been found to be positively correlated with the incidence of lameness, mastitis, reproductive disorders and metabolic disorders” , which are conditions often requiring antibiotic treatment.
Lameness, in particular, is correlated with higher milk yield. The greatly distended udder can cause an uneven load on the inner and outer claws of the hind feet, predisposing the cow to feet problems . The incidence of lameness has greatly increased over the past decades as milk yields have increased. According to a 2010 review of lameness in UK dairy cows, studies have found lameness prevalence rates varying from 0% up to 79% of cows in a herd, with average rates being between 25% and 37% . This compares with a lameness average of just 4% found in a 1957/8 survey of British dairy cows .
In more recent years, breeding programmes have changed and now include health and welfare goals , however it is clear that much more change will be needed to improve the genetic make-up of dairy cows as ADHB Dairy indicates that there have been few significant
improvements in lameness problems in the past 25 years .
Intensive beef and veal farming
An EFSA review of intensive cattle and calves farming found that many of the practices of these systems were associated with health and welfare problems .
Whereas EFSA said that “the husbandry of suckler cows at pasture generally results in good welfare”, it found that for more intensively farmed cattle the major health and welfare problems “were respiratory diseases linked to overstocking, inadequate ventilation, mixing of animals and failure of early diagnosis and treatment, digestive disorders linked to intensive concentrate feeding, lack of physically effective fibre in the diet, and behavioural disorders linked to inadequate floor space, and co-mingling in the feedlot”.
For intensively-farmed “white” veal calves, EFSA said that a major threat to their health were enteric diseases and anaemia linked to their largely liquid diet and lack of fibre . A Belgian study also found that antibiotic use in intensively-farmed veal calves was approximately 25 times higher than in cattle raised on pasture, and the scientists blamed the high level of antibiotic use on stocking density and transporting and mixing of calves from different locations .
Since respiratory problems and enteric problems are major reasons for antibiotic use in intensively-farmed cattle and calves , it is unsurprising that the antibiotic use data confirms so clearly that cattle raised on pasture have much lower needs for antibiotics.
This information has been taken from a new report from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. You can find the full report here.
For references, please see full report.