Sales of veterinary antibiotics across Europe decreased by more than 20% between 2011 and 2016, confirming that European Union (EU) guidance and national campaigns promoting prudent use of antibiotics are having a positive effect.

Efforts aiming to reduce the use of antibiotics on farms involve all stakeholders in the production of animal products, but farmers and veterinarians are central to these efforts.

Three basic principles for farmers and veterinarians to keep in mind include:

1. Zero prophylactic use

Treatment of mastitis, respiratory disorders and lameness represent most of the therapeutic use of antibiotics on dairy farms. Reducing the use of antibiotics does not mean stopping or reducing their use when they are needed to treat an infection. Indeed, proper therapeutic use of antibiotics implies using 'as little as possible, but as much as necessary.'

Intramammary use of antibiotics at drying-off is at the centre of efforts aiming to reduce the use of antibiotics on dairy farms. Selective drying protocols are becoming common in the European countries, representing a clear advancement from blanket application (prophylactic approach) to selective application (therapeutic approach).

2. Use the right type

More than 100 antibiotics have been developed to date. Not all of them have the same spectrum of activity or involve the same risk of spreading resistance. Moreover, not all of them have the same value for curing difficult-to-treat infections. Accordingly, categories of antibiotics have been defined, helping to make smart application choices.

European authorities updated the categorisation of antibiotics in early 2019 into what are now four categories: category A antibiotics are to be avoided in veterinary medicine and are not authorized for use with food producing animals; category B antibiotics are of restricted use (quinolones, 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins and polymyxins); category C antibiotics are to be used with caution (eg macrolides, amphenicols and cephalosporins); category D antibiotics are to be used with prudence (eg aminopenicillins and natural penicillins).

3. Implement alternatives

Alternatives to the use of antibiotics comprise not only alternative molecules and approaches for treating, but also for preventing bacterial infections. Indeed, novel approaches to support animal health and performance are already being implemented.

For example, OmniGenTM, a patented complementary feed product for ruminants, is recommended to be fed daily to support healthy immune function. Numerous research studies have shown effects of feeding OmniGen on key markers of immune function.

On the practical side, field data collected from over 700 farms show improving immune function led to a decrease in the incidence of infectious conditions, such as mastitis and metritis, and other issues heavily dependent on proper immune function, such as retained placenta, when farms start feeding OmniGen. Decreasing the incidence of these diseases may lead to less antibiotics needed for treatment.

Bons Holstein is a top Holstein breeder from west Netherlands, which holds many national and international dairy show titles. Nico Bons and his family are always striving for better cows and 'Breeding for perfection', as their slogan states, requires top attention to health, particularly in youngstock: 'most likely, calves that have to deal with disease will never reach to the top.'

He started feeding OmniGen to his calves, then to his show cows, and finally the good results convinced him to feed it to the whole herd.

“The frequency of our vet visits dropped to the extent that our vet asked whether we switched to another vet practice”, he recalls.

Looking through the records of the national antibiotic databank MediRund, he confirmed: “our use of antibiotics already dropped after a short period of feeding OmniGen, and after two years the decrease is even more spectacular.”

By excluding dry cow therapy and calf treatments, in the last year he has seen a decrease of more than 65% (see chart).