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Antibiotics - A farmer's viewpoint

Mike Magan, Dairy Farmer

I would ask farmers to think carefully before using an antibiotic. Reflect before you inject.

Mike Magan farms 200 dairy cows in Kilashee, Co. Longford in partnership with his son.  Mike is Chairman of Animal Health Ireland and is very enthusiastic about working to develop the Irish agricultural industry.  He is particularly interested in raising awareness of the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Demonstrating this commitment to tackling the issue of AMR head on, Mike is currently trialling a new drying off process on his farm which aims to see if the desired result can be achieved, without antibiotics. 

So Mike, how does this new process work?

“The drying off of cows is one of those routine processes that has to be done on all dairy farms and the use of both a long acting antibiotic and a sealing agent is the standard procedure for many farmers.  I decided to see if this two-pronged approach was really necessary or whether, with careful application, using just a sealing agent would produce the same result.

So two seasons ago we changed the policy on our farm to using the ‘antibiotic + seal’ procedure  only on cows above a certain SCC[1] threshold.  That year we had a cut off point of 150,000 SCC at the last milk recording before drying and no reading higher than that during the year.  That meant that we had roughly half the cows in each treatment group, i.e. half treated with dry cow tube and seal and half with seal only.  The results were that we had no change – no cases of dry cow mastitis and no increase in SCC during the following lactation.

Last year we repeated the policy but changed the threshold figures to 200,000 cells/mL and so had only 20% of the cows in the ‘double treatment’ category.  The results were as before. No dry cow cases and the same profile of SCC throughout the year. The only high SCC cows were the ones that were a problem the year before, and had been on the ‘antibiotic + seal’ regime anyway.

When the cows calve they get a coloured tape put on their tail, red tape for cows that get the dry cow antibiotic treatment and green tape for cows that got the seal only.  I need not tell you how less worrying it is dealing with the milk withdrawal of ‘green’ cows as compared to ‘red’ cows!”

It sounds like your experiment has been a success, what would you say was the most important factor in making it so?

“I think it is very important that we take our time and apply the teat seal properly.  Carrying out the job as hygienically as possible is what makes the most difference to my mind.  In order to best ensure this, we limit the number of cows to dry off on any given day so that we can give the job the care and attention necessary to do it right.  We mark the cows clearly as we do them and we separate them to avoid confusion.  We use medicated wipes to clean the teat, especially the teat end, using one wipe per teat.  I also dip the teat in a 10% iodine solution before they are let out to stand for a while before they lie down.

As well as ensuring the process is carried out as cleanly as possible, our record keeping has also been very important in correctly identifying which of our cows are suitable to receive just the seal without the antibiotic.”

You are clearly very committed to doing what you can in terms of protecting against antibiotic resistance, have you personal experience as regards protecting antibiotics for use in human health?

“Yes I do.  I lost my son 11 years ago to a brain tumour.  He was 12 years old when he was diagnosed, only 16 when he died and he spent a lot of that time in hospital.  He had to have a few major operations and he was given antibiotics then to keep down infection.  I was always so grateful that those antibiotics worked.  It really brought home to me the importance of the latest antibiotic as the last line of defence against a persistent infection.  It made me realise the duty we all have to protect antibiotics as an important public health resource.  It’s a duty I wouldn’t have taken too seriously before but having seen at first-hand how vital they are, I decided that if there was any small part I could play, then I would do it.”

What message would you like to give farmers about using antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance?

“I would like to send two messages to farmers in relation to their use of antibiotics.  Firstly, stop and think.  Reflect before you inject.   We all want healthy animals but do you really need an antibiotic to achieve that?  Talk to your vet and other farmers about what they are doing and their experience and see if a different approach could work for you.  I am not saying ‘don’t ever use antibiotics’ and I’m not trying to imply that farmers are not fully responsible in this area but I think it is important that we try and do our best to reserve using antibiotics for animals that really need it.

Secondly, I think it’s very important that where a farmer is given a prescription for an antibiotic for an animal that the full course of antibiotic is completed.  I believe it is as important to complete the course in the case of a veterinary antibiotic as it is on the human side of things. By not completing the course of treatment you are giving the bugs a fighting chance to develop resistance against that medicine and one day it could be your friend or family member who needs that same antibiotic to work.”

[1] Somatic cell count (SCC) is the number of somatic cells found in a millilitre of milk. Somatic cells (or “body” cells) are a mixture of milk-producing cells shed from the udder tissue (about 2%) and cells from the immune system (the other 98%), known as leukocytes (also called white blood cells). Somatic cell counts are useful in identifying intramammary infection in an individual cow or herd.