Antibiotics are a critical tool for the livestock farmer when used in conjunction with their vet in ensuring the health and welfare of the animals in their care.

However, with the rise of antibiotic resistance, their use has understandably come under increased scrutiny. And we are facing increased pressure to justify and reduce our usage.

While good progress has already been made in eliminating the use of antibiotics – there was a 25% reduction between 2014 and 2016 – we have been set further challenging targets by the government, particularly around the newer classes of antibiotics the so called 'High priority – Clinically important antibiotics' or HP-CIAs.

The dairy industry is aiming for a 20% reduction in overall antibiotic use by 2020, including a 50% reduction in HP-CIA.

Within dairy farms, antibiotics are mainly used to treat infections under four broad categories – mastitis, lameness, respiratory disease and post-calving infections, such as metritis. In each case, there are clear areas where we can make improvements.

For example: Using of vaccines, such as Startvac, to increase the cows’ immunity to mastitis-causing pathogens; undertaking selective dry cow therapy (SDCT) to reduce prophylactic use of antibiotics over the dry period; and eliminating the use of antibiotic footbaths.

Not only that but, hopefully, recent work towards eliminating BVD and tackling Johnes will increase the general health of the national dairy herd and thereby reduce levels of infection.

On the whole, the RTA (Red Tractor Assurance) scheme has had some useful policies around this area. Last year, it introduced the requirement to supplement the annual review of the herd health plan with a collation of the antibiotic usage for the year, thereby encouraging farmers and vets to identify areas where it might be possible to reduce use.

Also, there is a requirement that procedural failures which lead to antibiotic contaminated milk getting to the bulk tank are discussed. Which is useful as it is all too easy to try and dismiss such instances as one-offs.

However, one of the latest changes, coming into force in June, which states that 'HP-CIA should only be used as a last resort', although laudable in its aim, is somewhat lacking with respect to the forethought given to its implementation.

Of particular concern is the stipulation that an additional vet report with evidence of sensitivity or diagnostic testing is required before treatment begins. The reason that HP-CIA are used in the treatment of acute respiratory disease or acute mastitis, for example, is that there is a high likelihood that the animal’s life is in danger if treatment is (a) delayed or (b) ineffective.

It is important that vets are allowed to make the prescription decisions that they feel most appropriate without being seconded guessed, and that the welfare of animals isn’t compromised for the sake of red tape.

It should also be recognised that, certainly in the case of respiratory disease, it may be necessary for vets to make clinical decisions in situations where getting a sample of the infection is impossible.

Also, even where samples can be obtained, it can’t always be regarded as gospel. Firstly, it is not always a given that the most prevalent bacteria in a milk sample will be the causative agent in mastitis. Given the also ubiquitous occurrence of e-coli, unless great care is taken in getting the sample, this will almost certainly be found in any quantitative PCR testing whether it is the issue or not.

Anyway it is hoped that RTA will look again at this issue and while keeping with the aim that 'HP-CIA should only be used as a last resort', introduce policies that reflect what is achievable in practice.