Four Steps toward Judicious Antibiotic Use in Dairies

Veterinary oversight of extra-label antibiotic use is mandatory; otherwise, animal health can be impacted and result in violative residues. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

More than 60 percent of producers responding to a recent survey said they have changed their mastitis treatment protocols in the last few years to be more judicious with their antibiotic use. These producers are on the right track; using antibiotics correctly and minimizing unnecessary use on an operation can have a tremendous impact on animal health, food safety and consumer confidence in dairy products.


In addition to working closely with a veterinarian, the following practices can help your operation make strides toward more judicious antibiotic use:


1. Treat the infection, not the inflammation

Clinical mastitis is recognized when a producer sees abnormalities in the milk, the cow’s quarter or in the cow. Visible changes in the milk are the result of inflammation or the cow’s response to infection. The standard practice is to treat until the mastitis inflammation is gone, which is why some five-day treatment regimens have become common. However, this may be leading producers to over-treat with antibiotics.


“Visible abnormalities in the milk are often the first sign of mastitis, but they should not determine the length of treatment,” said Linda Tikofsky, DVM, senior associate director of dairy professional veterinary services, Boehringer Ingelheim.


Dr. Tikofsky added that the bacteria may be effectively killed within the first 24 to 48 hours of treatment, but the inflammation will go on another three or four days while the body eliminates the dead bacteria and white blood cells. Boehringer Ingelheim offers a tube with a three-treatment regimen that is effective at killing mastitis bacteria. However, the milk may still look abnormal at the time of the third treatment.


2. Culture milk before deciding to treat

For mild or moderate mastitis cases, Dr. Tikofsky recommends producers take a milk sample, culture it and wait 24 hours for results before treating. This can be done without a negative effect on cure rate or animal welfare. However, for severe mastitis cases, treat cows right away with an appropriate treatment protocol.


“In 30 to 40 percent of the cultured samples, there are no bacteria present since the cow has eliminated the infection herself, so producers are only seeing inflammation,” she explained. “Just wait until the inflammation subsides, then put the cow’s milk back in the tank when it returns to normal.”


3. Use antibiotics according to the label

Product labels contain important information including indications, dose, route of administration, treatment duration, milk withhold and meat withdrawal times, class of animals (lactating or non-lactating) as well as treatment frequency and duration. Veterinary oversight of extra-label antibiotic use is mandatory; otherwise, animal health can be impacted and result in violative residues.


Following the label is important to ensuring a safe food supply. “It’s our job to earn consumer trust and confidence to ensure there’s a future for our products,” said Jami Schultze, winner of the 2018 Boehringer Ingelheim Producers for Progress recognition program. “If a farm gets a drug residue violation, it means a consumer loses confidence in your product.”


4. Adhere to established protocols

Every dairy should have written protocols in place. Schultze works with her veterinarian to determine where they can make improvements. “Our veterinarian regularly reviews our mastitis cases and protocols to make sure we’re up to date and giving the best treatment,” she noted.


At Schultze’s operation, cows with gram-negative culture results aren’t administered antibiotics. “With any culture that’s gram-positive, we’ll take a look at the cow’s records and make sure she’s worthy of treatment,” she said. “If so, we’ll treat her.”


Of course, responsible antibiotic use requires an industry effort. “It can’t just be one farm making that decision,” advised Schultze. “Everybody’s got to jump on board.”