Over the past few years heightened scrutiny has been placed on antibiotic use in animal agriculture. This January will mark one year since the adoption of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) that placed strict regulations on the administration of certain antibiotics. While the dairy industry was not affected as much as other protein groups, the VFD did cause producers to re-evaluate how antibiotics were used and how they collaborated with their veterinarian.
The spotlight continues to be on the judicious use of antibiotics. One dairy taking that to heart is Prairieland Dairy. The operation is owned by nine families who merged a few years ago to dairy near Firth, Neb. Today the operation milks about 1,400 cows. Megan Hickey is a daughter in one of the original families and the herd manager.
Prairieland Dairy was chosen as the grand prize winner of the Boehringer Ingelheim Producers for Progress recognition program out of 200 applicants. The program recognizes producers who demonstrated their commitment to the well-being of animals, consumers and the industry with the judicious use of antibiotics.
“Our philosophy is to treat every cow like an individual,” Hickey says. “Blanket treatment has never appealed to me.”
When she came back to the dairy six years ago after graduating from South Dakota State University she made changes to animal health protocols, especially related to fresh cows and how cows were treated for mastitis.
Treatment Based on Need
At Prairieland, each case of mastitis is cultured in their on-farm lab. Cultures are raised on a bi-plate process in a simple incubator. Results are read at 24- and 48-hour intervals. Hickey, along with another employee and lead herdsman, reads results and treats cows accordingly.
This selective mastitis therapy has its benefits, including getting cows back into the milking string earlier. A Cornell University study looked at the difference between blanket treatment and a pathogen-based treatment protocol like what is used at Prairieland. Results showed pathogen-based treated cows spend, on average, three fewer days in the hospital area. Additionally, more than 68% of cows in the blanket treatment therapy were moderate and mild clinical cases that did not receive antibiotic therapy because the culture was negative for bacteria, or cultured a gram-negative organism.
In the fresh pen, Hickey is selective about which cows need treatment.
“Just because a cow has a baby doesn’t mean that she needs an antibiotic,” she says. “If I suspect that a cow has an issue, then they get temped and checked to determine if she needs treatment.”
Hickey also uses a monitoring tool through their Afimilk system to identify cows that might have an issue. She gets an alert on cows that have deviated from their normal production or activity patterns.
The herd is certified by Validus, an independent certification company, so protocols are established and followed around animal care and handling.
“We use an if-then approach to animal care,” Hickey says, where diagnosis triggers an animal care action in a decision tree format. If an animal has a temperature, it triggers an intervention. But if she is positive for ketosis with no fever, a different event is triggered.
Most protocols were developed by Hickey, and more recently Aaron Schaffer from Kansas State University has helped consult on the decision tree analysis system. Hickey also relies on technical veterinarians from animal health companies, who help analyze data when she needs another set of eyes.
Many animal health companies offer programs that train employees on proper antibiotic use. Zoetis Animal Health offers a training program on dairies that incorporates the dairy owner, herd manager and herd veterinarian. The two-day program focuses on education and on-farm application with a six-month follow up. The DairyCare365 program from Merck Animal Health offers a training program as well, focusing on developing and adhering to protocols around a set of standard operating procedures.
“Going from blanket mastitis treatment to the culturing system, we’ve saved about $15,000 per year in drugs alone,” Hickey says. That doesn’t include the extra milk that would have been held out until the cow was cleared of antibiotics. Savings are just in mastitis treatments.
“When you go into only giving antibiotics when there’s an issue, as well as revised vaccine protocols, we’ve had considerable savings,” Hickey says.
Hickey has a passion for research, and stays abreast of information to be proactive about herd health issues. She also relies on her veterinarian and consulting veterinarians for advice. Plus, she does her own analyses.
“We’re going to test our baby calves and see if maternal antibodies are protecting them and at what age so maybe we don’t need to vaccinate babies quite so young,” she says.
While this aggressive approach to prevention has paid off, Hickey says the process is all about the cow.
“Our main driver in making and following protocols is from the animal welfare standpoint. We looked at what we were doing to cows and treat them as individuals and not just a bunch of dairy cows,” she says. “I have peace of mind about how we are running things.”
Note: This story appeared in the November issue of Dairy Herd Management.