An ounce of prevention … UK farmers retain “produced without antibiotics” status through stress-free production

When using antibiotics to treat infection results in the loss of status, you do everything you can to prevent infection in the first place. This is the philosophy of UK-based organic dairy farmers Alan Webber. Providing a stress-free and hygienic environment has helped him retain the organic status of his herd and deliver top quality milk for USDA-certified organic cheddar cheese production.

A third generation producer, Alan Webber has been farming for nearly 25 years. He and his wife Donna rent a 250-acre farm in Devon, England where they milk 250 cows. They have another 120 replacement heifers in two separate age groups. Cows calve outdoors in standing hay starting in September and end in December. They graze outdoors until mid-November, and are housed indoors by night. Webber says he grazes the herd as much as possible.

In 2001, the Webbers decided to go organic, and seven years ago they started delivering to the local organic co-operative. The co-op, in turn, delivers to processors in Belgium, France and Germany. Delivering milk so far means Bactoscan counts have to be low (below 20); SCC counts have to be below 250,000. UK cheese maker Kingdom Cheddar processes some of the milk to make USDA-certified organic cheese. Milk for cheese production, said Webber, must be of very high quality.

Cows from little Dart

But it isn’t just quality that drives the Webbers to carefully manage their herd. Illness in an organic herd can have greater consequences than it does in a conventional herd where antibiotics can be used when needed. Once an animal is treated with antibiotics it loses its “Produced without antibiotics” (PWAB) status forever, said Webber. With stakes this high, maintaining high hygiene standards, reducing stress and boosting comfort are necessary preventative measures.

Health hardiness starts with breed selection, said Webber, who has opted for a mix of Holstein-Friesian, Norwegian Red and Montbéliarde genetics. The Norwegian Red brings vigour, while the Montbéliarde boosts yield. On average, each cow produces 7,000L/year, which is less than the average high-yielding breeds. But Webber is more concerned with health and hardiness than he is with yield.

“As soon as she starts producing more milk, she’s under more pressure,” he said. “I don’t want a cow producing more than 32L at peak.”

In order to maintain status, cows are housed in a stress-free environment with cubicles and mattresses covered in sand. Switching from sawdust to sand further improved udder hygiene and reduced incidents of mastitis, said Webber.

At milking, emphasis is put on hygiene. All cows are pre-sprayed and udders are wiped off with a clean udder cloth. Cloths are washed in a washing machine at 90°C after each milking.

Cubicles on the Webber farm

“We’ve realized that instead of trying to milk at high speeds, milking takes us a bit longer to get the hygiene results and to not have too much mastitis,” said Webber. “You have to do things properly.”

It’s important to ensure that cows are in ideal condition and well looked after during the dry period. “If we get things wrong in the dry cow period or when they calve, you suddenly get the snowball effect,” said Webber. “If she gets stressed during that calving period and things go wrong, then she’ll possibly get mastitis. Or you don’t get her in calving the next lactation.”

Webber opts for easy-calving Aberdeen-Angus bulls and artificial insemination to further reduce stress. Although he admits that they’re not getting the best price for their calves, last year only five out of 250 cows required assistance during calving. “We’re getting a smaller calf, but we don’t get any problems,” he said.

Preventing issues sometimes means acting early. As they approach drying off, cows with higher SCC will be dried off earlier. At this time Webber uses a teat sealant to further protect the udder from infection.

In the field, he does all he can to reduce stress and boost health as well. Each month, the herd is treated with fly repellent and udders are covered in high-grade pine tar to further reduce stress and infection from flies. Webber trims tails and clips around the udder to keep cows clean. During the dry period, he’ll apply high-grade pine tar and keep cows on higher ground to prevent bacterial infections and stress.

Webber has also added alternative practices to his management regime, including liquid minerals and cider vinegar, which are added to the drinking trough. The result, he said, was a 70,000 SCC decline. When cows do shows signs of inflammation they’re treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Webber uses Japanese udder mint to soothe inflammation as well.

While udder health is top priority, Webber takes a whole-picture approach to health. Bolstering hoof health, he says, reduces undue stress from lameness, which is why he’s worked to improve walking tracks and trims hooves during the dry period. Cows with foot issues are treated with Manuka honey and bandages.

When stakes are high, prevention is crucial. The healthier the cow, the healthier the udder, said Webber. “All the time we’re trying to prevent because the cure is obviously a little more costly to us,” he said in conclusion.




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