There is a lack of knowledge and expertise regarding how to limit the use of antibiotics at the farm level without harming cattle health
The focus on cross-breeding and productivity in the global quest for dairy modernisation has increased milk production while also leading to high use of agrochemicals.
The use of antibiotics for common cattle diseases, such as udder infection and diarrhoea, is widespread. This contributes to the global threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
An international network under Natural Livestock Farming Foundation (NLF) — a non-profit — has developed an effective methodology to support farmers in reducing their use of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs in smallholder and large-scale dairy systems.
The foundation has brought together farmers, livestock scientists and veterinarians from Ethiopia, Uganda, India and the Netherlands since 2014.
This international network on knowledge development for livestock health is re-valuing time-tested methods, such as the use of medicinal plants and strategic use of local breeds, to be applied in a modern context.
NLF combines knowledge from various backgrounds, indigenous knowledge, western veterinary science and Ayurveda.
The NLF Foundation aims at improving cattle health based on a five-layered approach comprising the following:
NLF’s core activities are action research, exchange of best practices and training. The combination of bottom-up experimentation and international peer-to-peer exchange is additional to existing initiatives in AMR control.
This opens up opportunities that more conventional livestock development programs fail to unlock — providing an opportunity for increased farm income, better child nutrition, food security and an improved environment.
Ethnovetmedicine as part of the five-layered approach is gradually being adopted, especially within countries with smallholder dairy farmers. The main example is India. It is the largest dairy producer in the world, based on 98 per cent zero-grazing smallholder dairy farmers with two-five cows.
Over the past decade, NLF India has trained 30,000 farmers and 2,000 veterinarians on efficiently using herbs for cattle health, also known as ethnoveterinary practices.
The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) has adopted the method since 2017. The empirical data of more than 556,000 cases of 30 bovine diseases cured with herbal medicine were recorded through an online reporting system.
An overall average cure rate of 82 per cent was registered and an 87 per cent reduction in antibiotic use was observed within two years after the training.
NLF in Ethiopia — headed by the Ethiopian Society of Animal Production — implemented action research based on the NLF approach in two zero-grazing smallholder dairy communities.
Experts from NLF India headed a training on the use of medicinal plants — mainly kitchen herbs. The organisations collaborating with NLF Netherlands guided training on laboratory skills and calf management.
The approach has shown significant improvement in milk quality in two years — eight per cent reduction in antibiotic residue, over 50 per cent increase in milk quantity, 33 per cent increase in farm income and 60 per cent reduction in calf mortality.
The average cost of cattle health was reduced by 20 per cent. This pilot project will support the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture in improving milk quality and scaling up the strategy into various dairy programs.
The initial focus of NLF in Uganda — headed by the Lake Mburo Farmers Cooperative Society — was on the natural control of ticks and tick-borne diseases among smallholder-ranging cattle. A herbal formula based on local plants was developed and experimented by experts from NLF India in 2017-2018.
The society has also focused on diversifying farm activities, including value addition and local marketing of dairy products in recent years.
Also read: Our daily dose of antibiotics
Some 400 farmers and 50 veterinarians have joined the activities since the initiative was launched in the Netherlands in 2015. Mastitis treatment with antibiotics was a common practice in the dairy industry.
The government has required mandatory (national) registration of antibiotic use since 2014, establishing a one-to-one link between farmers and veterinarians regarding the use of antibiotics.
As a result, the use of antibiotics in the total livestock production systems was reduced to around 70 per cent compared to 2009. The use of ready-made natural products was one of the major shifts in mastitis prevention and cure in the Dutch dairy sector.
Moreover, farmers started reintroducing herbs in cattle feed and grasslands. This exposed the lack of knowledge among farmers and veterinarians about herbal grassland management and the safety of herbal products.
NLF in the Netherlands has trained farmers and veterinarians on the safe use of herbal products and herbal grassland management since 2018. The Dutch government has invested in the spread of knowledge on natural remedies.
The main focus in dairy development has been on maximising cattle productivity and milk quantity. At this point, the crisis with AMR obliges the sector to look beyond this and focus on both milk quantity and quality.
However, there is a lack of knowledge and expertise regarding how to limit the use of antibiotics at the farm level without harming cattle health.
The strategic collaboration headed by NLF has brought about a road map for improving cattle health and milk quality.
It is time to upscale it into mainstream dairy policies, extension and education. For this, NLF is reaching out to non-profits, government, research institutes and funding agencies while organising webinars, field-level pilots and international exchanges.
Katrienvan’t Hooft is Executive Director, Foundation for Natural Livestock Farming and Director, Dutch Farm Experience, the Netherlands
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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