For the last two years, 30 forward-thinking farmers have participated in multiple action-groups across South-West England, aiming to reduce their use of on-farm antibiotics.

The group, dubbed ‘Antibiotics Anonymous’ by its members, represented a wide range of farming systems; from organic and conventional 60 to 600 cow herds, block to all-year-round calving patterns, grazing and housed herds; all with different opportunities and challenges.

Using the stable schools approach from Denmark, this super-farmer action group led by Lisa Morgans, Bristol Vet School, used knowledge and expertise from farmers to provide practical solutions to reduce antibiotic use.

Significant improvement

Speaking at the final meeting, Miss. Morgans said: “Reducing reliance of antibiotics reduction is a key focus in the dairy industry, all of the farmers involved in the action group put in 100% to try and reduce their reliance on antibiotics.

One farmer, in particular, stands out as he successfully implements over 90% of the practical ideas on his action plan.

Four of the farms involved successfully reduced antibiotic use across all of the measurement criteria, with many more farms achieving a reduction for some of the criterion.

Additionally, nine farms stopped using ‘highest priority critically important’ antibiotics completely, increasing the total of farms not using these from 20% to 50%.

‘Antibiotics Anonymous’ has demonstrated the advantages of farmer-to-farmer learning. Farm walks led by the host farmer encouraged farmers to compare and contrast, and consider best practices, challenges and opportunities around reducing antibiotic use.

Farmer-to-farmer learning has been a benefit for many involved in the project, but the farmers noted the power of this learning style to bring people together and build relationships, allowing for more open discussion and feedback.

“Going around other farms allowed us to cherry-pick ideas from each other and when you go home you start to think how you could implement similar changes on your own farm,” explained one member of the group.

From farm maps to score-charts and ping-pong ball voting systems, Miss. Morgans used various methods to capture the group’s ideas; which helped to develop bespoke action plans for each farm.

As a result, some 300 practical steps were identified for the farmers to introduce over the course of a year.

Key focus areas

The top three focus areas on the action plans included lameness management, cubicles and bedding, and calf housing management.

In one innovative example, one farmer made small changes to his calf house, following hands-on ideas from other farmers, which helped to reduce incidences of respiratory diseases.

After seeing a different protocol on one farm, another farmer changed his parlour milking routine, which helped to reduce the rate of mastitis.

Additionally, following a EuroDairy exchange visit to the Netherlands, two farmers implemented further changes, including dry cow management and using selective dry cow therapy to adapting cubicles to improve comfort to encourage more lying time.