By Debbie James

A Ceredigion milk producer says reducing antibiotic use on Welsh dairy farms will rely on good hygiene and biosecurity.

Alec Cowan visited Holland with support from the Farming Connect Management exchange programme to inform decisions on how he can cut his own antibiotic use and increase efficiency in his dairy herd at Blaencwmpridd near Llandysul.

Here he found a country where the dairy industry has made huge progress in reducing reliance on antibiotics.

“The key take-home messages were attention to detail, consistency and cleanliness,’’ Mr Cowan reports.

He chose to base his study in Holland because 25 per cent of its dairy farms have robots compared to just 2-3 per cent in the UK.

Tighter restrictions regarding drug use and availability for farmers and vets was also of significant interest, says Mr Cowan, who visited four farms, all with slightly different systems.

He believes there is much that Welsh farmers can learn from how dairy farms in Holland have adapted to government regulation.

It is not only drug use that is restricted in Holland. Its farmers are prohibited from umbilical slurry application – all slurry must be injected as a means of reducing the impact on wildlife.

Schemes have also been introduced to reduce phosphate production, including caps on the size of dairy herds.

“Farms cannot increase their cow numbers beyond the numbers they had in October 2016 without having to pay huge amounts of money. This makes expansion uneconomical,’’ Mr Cowan says.

He is hoping to implement some of the knowledge he gained within his own business, although differences between his farm and those he visited does limit the extent of this.

One point of difference is the topography – Mr Cowan’s land is very hilly and, at 64 inches, his annual rainfall average is double that of the farms he visited.

But study has provoked ideas on what he can change.

Although his system is currently fully housed, he says he may now graze cows at some point in the future.

And, to reduce the need for antibiotics, he says he will ensure cleanliness is a priority and that cows are milked immediately before drying off.

“What we can take away with us is that the Dutch are managing with fewer amounts and types of antibiotics and still have healthy, productive cows,’’ he says.

Much is down to the approach of ‘prevention is better than cure’.

“There is a huge amount of attention to detail regarding hygiene and biosecurity,’’ says Mr Cowan.

“All the herds I visited were closed herds and used AI, so no disease could be brought onto the farm via stock.’’

Visitors are provided with their own protective clothing and footwear to reduce the likelihood of disease being transmitted.

Mr Cowan was impressed by calf health but says much of this was due to non-dairy replacements being retained for just a couple of weeks, resulting in fewer calves on farms.

But the standard of buildings is good – mostly slats and individual pens which facilitate cleanliness, and all the farms he visited have automated machines for mixing milk.

“Generally, all the sheds are purpose built with excellent ventilation and automated shutters if the weather deteriorates. This will do a huge amount to prevent disease but has required massive investment by the farmers,’’ says Mr Cowan.

There are no livestock marts in Holland which means there is less mixing of stock.

Vets also play a different role on Dutch dairy farms than they do in Wales.

“It seems they are called out a lot more to examine a sick animal, compared to farmers in the UK dealing with a lot of issues themselves,’’ says Mr Cowan.

“Vets have a lot more control of drug use on the farms, for instance vets dry off and vaccinate the cows.’’