Why do we use antibiotics on our farm? Very simply, because despite everything we do to look after their well being, cows, just like people, sometimes fall ill and need antibiotics to get better.
It’s very rare that any of our 260 milking cows become lame with an infection while digestive problems are almost unheard of here and, in any case, do not require antibiotics.
The number one illness we treat on our farm is mastitis. If you’ve breastfed a baby yourself, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced mastitis. In both cows and women, the symptoms include swelling, warmth and redness for light cases. Nasty cases bring flu-like symptoms that, in cows, can progress to become extremely serious.
How we prevent mastitis
So, how do we reduce the incidence of mastitis on the farm? We begin even before the calf is conceived by selecting sires whose daughters show a naturally lower susceptibility to mastitis.
At the same time, we minimise the risk of infection by keeping the cows and their environment as clean as possible. Tracks are maintained so there’s less mud around to flick onto teats and cows are happy to walk straight to their grassy paddocks rather than spending their rest times on mucky surfaces.
The cows are well fed with a carefully balanced diet that is mostly grass and we treat the cows with care to minimise stress. It’s a slow, gentle walk to the milking shed, there’s no shouting and if I see one of our cows run, there’d better be a good explanation!
The hygiene of the dairy is important, too. We clean any dirty teats before the milking machine cups go on and spray them afterwards with a mix of iodine and glycerine to disinfect and protect them. We also routinely test the milking machines to make sure they are gentle and effective.
And we’re vigilant. Not surprisingly, when you spend hours every day with the cows’ udders at face level, you notice a sore cow quite quickly. A sore cow is an unhappy cow and an unhappy cow is an unhappy milker, too. Everyone who milks in the dairy has been specially trained at a “Cups On, Cups Off” course to look for mastitis and put top priority on the comfort of our cows.
Sometimes, cows have sub-clinical infections that don’t show any symptoms, so every few weeks, we collect samples of milk from every cow and have them analysed at the local herd test centre lab.
It’s a lot of work but it’s important work. The comfort of the cows is our number one priority and there are implications for the quality of the milk, too. If there is too much mastitis in the herd, our milk has a shorter shelf life.
One thing we don’t do, however, is include antibiotics in the cows’ feed. Routine antibiotic use is not legal and would mean that none of our milk would be useable.
When we find a cow with mastitis, we don’t wait to see whether she goes downhill, we treat her immediately with the medicine prescribed by (and only available from) our vets to help her recover fast. Antibiotics help the cow feel better in a day and we keep on milking her so that her udder is well drained and kept as soft as possible.
Making sure milk is free from antibiotic residues
The milk we collect from a treated cow is tipped out until there is no risk of antibiotic residues in the milk. The antibiotics come with quite precise details of how long they remain in meat and milk. It’s critical information because nobody wants food laced with antibiotics, especially those with life-threatening allergies.
As precautionary measures, we:
- paint the cow’s udder red as a warning to everyone in the dairy that she either needs more treatment or to have her milk disposed of,
- write her treatment needs and the time her milk needs to be withheld from the vat on a whiteboard in the dairy for all to see, and
- record all her treatment details in a quality and treatment register.
After she has finished a course of treatment, we check the cow again to be sure the infection has cleared up.
Testing for antibiotic residues
Even with all these protocols, it’s good to know that if milk contaminated with antibiotics somehow got into the vat, there are more safeguards in place. In the next post, a guest from milk processor, Fonterra, will explain how they test our milk for antibiotics.
The bottom line
Our cows live good, healthy lives and rarely fall ill but when they do get sick, we give them the best treatment available straight away. For people and animals alike, antibiotics are our last line of defence against misery and death, so we use them only when really needed and then with great care. And I don’t want to go back to a world without them.