Organic farming and the use of antibiotics

The problem of antibiotic resistance is real and there’s no shying away from the fact that healthier farm animals is the answer. We meet some organic farmers who are leading the way…

Organic farming and the use of antibiotics

Graham from Acorn Dairy gives his cows apple cider vinegar to boost their immune systems

“Think of your own body. When you are working hard, under pressure, stressed about things, maybe not eating well or lacking sleep, what happens? You end up with a cold,” explains organic farmer Graham Tweddle.

Your own immune system has succumbed to one of the millions of cold viruses that we encounter on a daily basis. It is the same for a dairy cow.

Graham Tweddle is a farmer at Acorn Dairy in the market town of Darlington, County Durham, and has a 250-strong herd of cattle. His aim is to keep the livestock happy and healthy so they don’t fall ill and require antibiotics.

“If antibiotics have to be used then the cow has to be taken out of milk production for six days until the drugs are out of its system,” explains Graham.

At Acorn Dairy, they also demand less from their cows, who each produce 6,500 litres of milk a year compared to non-organic levels of up to 10,000 litres.

While antibiotics are a lifesaver for sick animals, just like they are for humans, the problem lies in the practice of mass-medicating whole groups of animals when no disease is present. Yet, it’s still happening and is often used to compensate for low-welfare, cramped conditions where disease outbreaks are common and harder to control.

According to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, an EU-wide campaign against the overuse of antibiotics in farming, farm animals account for almost two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries, and around 30% of all antibiotics used in the UK. Now experts such as the UK’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies and specialists at the World Health Organisation are warning the farming industry to reduce mass antibiotic use in food-producing farming.

As drug resistance spreads – and we potentially lose the antibiotics we rely on – many medical advances we’ve made could be lost. A simple human infection which we are currently able to treat quickly with antibiotics could become something much more serious.

Organic is currently the only certified system that explicitly limits farm antibiotic use and requires farmers to use other methods to prevent and treat disease, with antibiotics available as a last resort for sick animals.

“Healthy animals don’t need antibiotics,” says Suzi Shingler from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, which is made up of health, medical, farming, environmental and civil society organisations from across the EU.

“When buying meat and dairy products, a good rule of thumb is to aim for the highest welfare accreditation you can, that way the likelihood is the welfare standard of production has been higher, and chances of disease from poor welfare and living conditions lower.”

Antibiotic use is by far the highest in pigs and evidence shows that with pig farming, increasing the weaning age for piglets, rearing pigs outdoors and lowering the number of pigs per square metre can improve gut health and reduce the need for antibiotics.

Reducing antibiotic use in farming requires significant change. Studies are currently underway to seek alternatives for animal medicine on farms and many also are looking to the success of organic farming.

“It's no secret that organic farms provide some of the best welfare environments there are, and any farmer that achieves excellent levels of animal health should be proud of what they do,” says Shingler.

Meanwhile at Acorn Dairy, if animals get sick, farmer Graham Tweddle uses herbs, iodine, and various feed supplements (including seaweed) and they are about to start a trial of vitamin treatments, to “ensure the animal is literally fighting fit so it can deal with infections without outside assistance”.

In Lancashire, Gazegill Organics is a 280-acre farm that has organic, free-range, grass-fed Shorthorn cattle that produce meat and dairy products. It is run by husband and wife, Ian and Emma O’Reilly (pictured below).

The O’Reillys only use antibiotics if absolutely necessary, as they believed “a natural immunity would build in the herd” and that has happened now since going organic.

“We feel that there are many other options in the dairy herd that can be used before antibiotics,” explains Ian O'Reilly.

“Our cows are free to roam the farm and find herbs and grasses and even different soils for minerals to eat, to help them self-medicate. We stand firm on antibiotic use as they are life savers and ought only ever to be used as such.”

It's great to know that when you choose organic meat, dairy or eggs you can guarantee that the animal has been cared for using the highest welfare standards available, with no routine antibiotic use. Together we can help safeguard the effectiveness of our antibiotics for the future - just look for the little green EU organic leaf logo to find food you can trust.

Katie Roche

Katie Roche

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