Antibiotic use in food systems is a controversial topic in a society that depends heavily on factory farming to meet its needs. Despite mounting concern about antibiotic resistance globally, parts of the UK agricultural industry remain opposed to further restriction. Through experience in different lambing systems, Aron Marshall knows well how commonplace routine antibiotic use is. Could their overuse be addressed simply by policymakers actively incorporating traditional good husbandry knowledge of farmers into best practice management plans?
The use of antibiotics has been central to intensive livestock farming. It allows livestock to be kept alive in confined conditions, limiting the spread of pathogens which would otherwise cause widespread infection. Thus, antibiotic use in farming has had hugely beneficial impacts in terms of producing meat cheaply and in much larger quantities. However, it is not without consequences.
Due to the nature of intensive systems, antibiotics often need to be administered to all animals. This is to create herd immunity, regardless of how small a number (or indeed, if any) livestock have developed an infection.
This contributes to the rise of antibiotic resistance which creates a host of issues, not least in terms of animal health and cost. Additionally, trace residues of antibiotics can be found in many meats sold at supermarket level. Antibiotic resistant bacteria is thus transferred from food and farming systems to human health systems, thereby contributing to more treatment-resistant infections in humans.
Clearly, it is essential to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming, and throughout the EU, increased pressure for antibiotic cuts has yielded positive results. For example antibiotic use in chicken farming in the Netherlands was reduced by 72% from 2011 to 2016. However, parts of the UK agricultural industry remain resistant to change.
These are in particular the advocates of intensive livestock production. A significant voice among them is David Burch, a leading veterinarian specialising in intensive pig and poultry farming. In a letter published in the Veterinary Record, he argues that further restrictions on farm antibiotic use in UK farming are unnecessary due to the UK’s relatively low use of antibiotics per unit of livestock compared to other European countries and an apparent lack of evidence that highly resistant E. coli bacteria can transfer from animals to humans.
Opposition and indifference to antibiotic restriction exists. But to address this it is vital that suitable alternatives are presented. Could it be that primary stakeholders, such as farmers, simply do not feel valued for their knowledge and fall back on antibiotic use because of a disconnection with their traditional practices? Are there alternatives to antibiotics that draw on the knowledge farmers have held and passed down through generations? Of course there is, and good management strategies which promote best practice husbandry to reduce the need for antibiotics are nothing new.
My experience of lambing has been a steep and very interesting learning curve. My first season, in March 2017 was on a small family farm in Gloucestershire with around three hundred ewes, while my second season was on a large estate in the Lake District running several thousand. The difference in number of sheep meant that management plans were extremely different. But routine antibiotic use was present on both, as was concern by the farmer and shepherds with its overuse. Antibiotic management strategies had been given to both enterprises by their veterinarians with the emphasis of only using antibiotics routinely unless essential, however once the first case of watery mouth (an infection in lambs caused by E.Coli) was found, routine antibiotic dosage was recommended in order to avoid spreading the infection throughout the sheds.
The crucial stage then is avoiding the transference of infection to livestock. After speaking to the farm staff I learnt this can be avoided simply through best practice management systems that insists on good and thorough husbandry practices. For example, routine oral antibiotics given to lambs at birth, which involves a high risk of under-dosing, can be replaced by more stringent measures to ensure that lambs suck and receive appropriate colostrum, either via the ewe or through hand-feeding. Furthermore, good ewe nutrition means that the immune system of the ewe remains strong, whilst also producing adequate colostrum for the lamb. Tailored nutritional management plans can include forage analysis, and blood testing of the ewe to a create metabolic profile to modify the diet prior to lambing. The connection between good colostrum intake at birth and strong natural immunity is well evidenced, and published through the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) and their #Colostrumisgold campaign.
Another aspect of routine antibiotic use is intravenous antibiotics to ewes after to difficult birthing. Alternatively, improved ease-of-lambing can be accomplished by marking and culling ewes which show difficult births, low colostrum production, small lamb size and so on. Approaches such as these improve flock genetics and reduce the need for antibiotic use for the long term due to less disease and lameness, as well as saving farmers significant costs on purchasing antibiotics, vet bills and livestock mortality.
Keeping shed hygiene to a very high standard is essential: ewes and lambs must not be allowed to live in dirty pens, which are a breeding ground for bacteria. They must be given fresh bedding consistently. Once emptied, pens need to be cleared and disinfected before the next use. Weather and health permitting, it is also vital that lambs and ewes do not spend longer in the pens then they need to, and the sooner they are separated from the close confines of the shed the better in terms of avoiding infections. Lambing sheds are very busy places, and in the hastiness of the height of season it is easy to overlook a dirty pen or a lamb having difficulty sucking. But through effective management plans involving best practice, disease prevention and adequate nutrition, antibiotic use can be massively reduced.
Despite the argument that antibiotics are required for intensive farming to function, and in turn intensive farming is required to produce enough food cost effectively, the scale of risk from antibiotic resistance is too high to continue unless in essential cases. Furthermore, by universally challenging the outlook that routine antibiotic use is a substitute for good livestock management, opposition to antibiotic restrictions in farming may be reduced.
Farmers must be made to feel valued for their knowledge and to feel like they are actively involved in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Policymakers must integrate this knowledge into any antibiotic resistance management strategies put forward.