Since the beginning of time, disease and illness have been a significant challenge for both human medicine and animal agriculture. In fact, when humans and animals shared housing it was an ever present fear. The discovery of live organisms to produce products that counteract disease and illness was considered to be a miracle. However, a good thing can turn into a bad thing, if it is not properly used. Such can be the case in the use of antibiotics on dairy farms. So what can dairy farmers do about using antibiotics as they continue to produce top notch products while remaining sustainable?
Lots of Press
It seems that hardly a week goes by that we do not hear on the news, read in the press or read online where a consumer group is concerned about antibiotics in the food they eat. This fear has created a push back that challenges, “do not use a GMO to create a product or practice to benefit dairy farming.” But for this article let’s stick with addressing antibiotics.
To dairy folks, it often seems that the press is all bad news. But I am sure that politicians, oil industry, policing and many other sectors can all classify the press as negative and fear-mongering. For our farming industry, the challenge is what we do on-farm, how we document and how we inform consumers when it comes to antibiotic use.
Consumers and Antibiotics
There is absolutely no reason that consumers should expect anything but antibiotic free food. But they can be fed a line of bull by marketers despite the fact that checks are already in place to guarantee milk and meat products, produced on dairy farms, are antibiotic free. In order to get consumers to buy the product they are promoting, marketers add the label “Antibiotic Free.” After that, it is a downward spiral of doubt in consumers’ minds on any products that do not say “free.”
Consumers say they trust farmers. As dairy farmers, we must earn and maintain that trust. Until labeling regulations are revised to take the fear factor out of what the consumer reads, farmers must do all they can do to send milk off-farm that contains zero antibiotics.
It is true that over prescribed antibiotics by the medical system and antibiotics improperly disposed of, can and do contribute to polluting antibiotics in the eco-system. So both dairy farmers and consumers must follow appropriate procedures when it comes to antibiotics. Antibiotic residue must be eliminated.
Dairy Industry Approach
For years the dairy industry has been silent about the pristine product milk is. Well, our industry can not be silent anymore. On-farm quality assurance programs, which include antibiotic usage monitoring, have been implemented in a few countries but have been slow to develop and be implemented in many high volume milk countries. Having such programs will allow the dairy industry to go from being reactive to proactive on all quality matters including antibiotic usage.
A big challenge for the dairy industry is that consumers expect milk to be cheap and high quality. Part of our industry’s consumer awareness program needs to make it known that safe food can only come from healthy animals. Top notch animal health programs require that properly used antibiotics must be available to treat sick animals. Having government approved antibiotics available make it possible for farmers to produce more high-quality milk per cow and thereby keeping the cost of milk in the stores at a reasonable price. Every dairy farmer knows that sick and low producing cows do not make for maximum profit.
On an individual farmer basis, we must learn to speak up, talk to consumers and support industry initiatives when it comes consumer awareness. One individual comes to mind on a producer who does a great job. That is Carrie Mess and her blog ‘Dairy Carrie’ (Read more: Dairy Carrie – Diary of a City Kid Gone Country). As well as being a full-time farmer she time and again takes time from her full schedule to explain all the practices in place on-farm to guarantee quality.
Another thing that would help is if all sectors, farmers, processors, marketers, and regulators would work cooperatively to guarantee quality to consumers. Too often we blame our fellow industry stakeholders for not doing their job. Well, folks we are on in this boat together.
As mentioned above, there needs to be organized quality assurance programs in every region that produces milk that goes to processors and enters into the food chain.
Hopefully, the attitude that existed a while back that it is production as all costs push the cows to the limit and use drugs to solve any problems is fast being replaced by responsible production of quality milk.
Like anything else that happens on a dairy farm it involves, genetics, nutrition, environment and management, when it comes to minimizing antibiotic use and ensuring no milk or meat leaves the farm that contains antibiotics. Now you are likely asking why the mention of meat. Well, we mention that because animals are sold to the meat industry from dropped bull calves all the way to cull cows and all those need to be antibiotic free, just like the milk that is shipped.
And it is not enough to simply follow all the proper practices when it comes to using antibiotics. Exact records must be kept for all animals in the herd. Not just the milking cows. But the calves, heifers, steers, dry cows, …. yep, every last animal. (Read more: Dairy Farmers: In God We Trust All Others Bring Data)
Genetics Can Help
This would not be a Bullvine article if we did not include something about genetics.
Some tips when it comes to using genetics to minimize antibiotic use include:
- Totally avoid using sires rated 3.00 or higher for SCC
- Avoid using sires whose daughters are slow milkers or leak milk
- Eliminate from your herd cow families that have SCC’s over 3.00
- Avoid sires that have low daughter fertility ratings as such animals tend to require more drug
- Avoid using sires whose daughters become stressed and thin 40-100 days after calving
- Avoid using sires whose daughters tend to have feet problems or susceptibility to foot diseases.
- Select sires with positive ratings for liveability, wellness, immunity, mastitis resistance and mobility
Every AI stud has many bulls that leave daughters that have minimal disease and thereby do not require less administration of antibiotics.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
The attitude of not caring about excessive use of antibiotics on-farm does not cut it anymore. Animal wellness is critical and five years from now it will be even more important. Yes, progress has been made on most farms in recent years. As producers, we must own the challenge of minimizing the use and not sending off-farm antibiotics. If we can do that consumers will be able to say “Thanks, Dairy – Antibiotics Is Not an Issue