When speaking to vets around the country for last week’s animal health focus, it struck me how worried they are about losing some of our common antibiotics and how our farming systems will have to change to cope with reduced antibiotics in the future.

Losing these antibiotics isn’t happening for no reason – their use over the years has led to the development of resistance to some antibiotics and with that comes the risk of losing these antibiotics for humans as well.

The level of antibiotic usage on Irish beef farms is very low. However, we still have to be careful and make sure farmers do everything in their power to avoid having to go down the road of losing some of the critically important antibiotics in livestock farming.

What is antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?

AMR happens when micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi or parasites change after exposure to antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics or anthelmentics, and, as a result, these medicines become ineffective, causing infections to persist in the body of animals or humans and increase the risk of spreading the disease to others or not being able to cure the animal or person treated.

What can farmers do to prevent antimicrobial resistance?

One of the main ways of reducing the risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on your farm is by keeping animals healthy through good management.

Healthy animals will have a good immune system, so therefore should be able to fight off small infections. Vaccination has a big role to play and will become more and more important in the future as we try to move away from overusing antibiotics.

Good nutrition also has a role to play, along with a parasite control plan for the farm, making sure the animals are not compromised in any way.

Antibiotics shouldn’t be looked upon as a standard treatment for sick animals and both vets and farmers are expected to use antibiotics in a prudent and responsible manner.

Herd health planning

We all like the idea of herd health planning and think it’s a great idea that should be done, but how many of us actually pay any attention to it and implement a plan?

We have a poor history with herd health planning in this country. In other countries, vets plan their week with routine visits to farms, essentially catching up with farmers, monitoring health incidences, performance, etc.

It means issues are caught much quicker, before they become a big problem. Farmers see a real value in this service and pay accordingly.

In Ireland, some farmers think it’s great if the vet hasn’t been on the farm for the last six months. I think this will have to change if we are to take herd health planning seriously.

The busy nature of large animal practices means many vets don’t have time to spend going through data or monitoring health situations on farms.

In the last knowledge transfer programme, the option was there for health plans, but it was a box-ticking exercise for many vets and farmers, and few took it very seriously.

The vet has to be central in the process, but there are others, including the agricultural advisor, the scanning operator, hoof trimmer, AI technician and family members, who all provide valuable information for the drawing up of a herd health plan.

This doesn’t have to be an 80-page document highlighting every detail of the farm, but rather a simple go-to document to summarise what needs to happen on the farm on a monthly basis from an animal health point of view, such as timely reminders of what to do in relation to vaccinations, faecal testing, scanning, etc.

It also doesn’t mean stuffing it into the bottom drawer in the office and forgetting about it. The plan should be reviewed on an annual basis with the vet and farmer and be revised as things on the farm change and outbreaks of disease occur.

Farmers and vets have a role to play and only through working together and communicating can things change.

That means leaving the fire brigade model behind us and embracing herd health planning as a tool to help improve profitability on beef farms and do our bit in the fight against resistance.

Reducing use of antibiotics on beef farms

  • Make sure that calves receive 3l of colostrum within two hours of birth. Any calf that required assistance at calving should be stomach-tubed the colostrum.
  • Make sure calving pens are cleaned regularly and ample straw is used around calving.
  • Use a navel treatment (iodine or chlorohexidine) to help dry up calf navels and reduce infections.
  • If handling cows, make sure hands are clean and always use gloves to reduce the chances of the cow contracting an infection post-calving.
  • Make sure calves have a dry lie and eliminate any low-level drafts in creep areas that could lead to pneumonia.
  • Space is important and making sure you have adequate loose straw-bedded sheds at calving time is important.
  • Adequate help is also important. Spring is an extremely busy time on beef and sheep farms and having good help is important, especially if and when things go wrong.