Herbs Help Dairy Farms Abandon Antibiotics

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Joining forces, dairy farmers in the Netherlands and Uganda are learning from Indian experts about using medicinal herbs to prevent animal diseases and reduce the widespread reliance on antibiotics for livestock.

Many of us picture dairy farms with rolling green pastures and lazily grazing cows, but the vast majority of commercial dairy products come from intensive industrial farms optimized by modern technologies. Yet these “high-tech solutions” may also be the root of the industry’s main challenges.

A common problem on dairy farms—especially large-scale industrial farms—is mastitis, an udder infection that is responsible for 16.5 percent of dairy cattle deaths in the United States. In addition to shortening the cows’ lifespans, mastitis results in the production of lower-quality milk, with lower cheese yield and a shorter shelf life.

Dwindling Defenses

The most urgent problem related to antibiotic overuse is the development of drug resistance—when bacteria evolve to become stronger “superbugs” that are able to survive subsequent antibiotic applications. This resistance makes it increasingly difficult to cure bacterial infections in livestock as well as in humans, since many human medicines rely on the same types of drugs being used for livestock. Losing the effectiveness of antimicrobials renders many medical therapies increasingly risky, including organ transplantation and cancer chemotherapy, due to the danger of untreatable infection.

Changing Tactics

To address health risks, the government of the Netherlands announced in 2010 an ambitious goal to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal farming by 70 percent, compared with a 2009 baseline. To maintain the quality of the milk while also reducing antibiotic use, dairy farmers looked around the world for solutions. With the help of a Dutch non-governmental organization, Natural Livestock Farming, farmers found inspiration in India.

Rethinking Drugs and Drug-intensive Agriculture

Herbal treatments offer a new mindset for health. Rather than simply replacing the one-shot mechanism of antibiotics, the Ayurvedic application of medicinal herbs (like that of Chinese traditional medicines) acts via a more multi-faceted mechanism, centered on restoring balance and regaining the body’s own resilience to disease. Farmers are turning to medicinal plants in recognition of this underexploited and undervalued holistic approach.

Sharing the Knowledge and Vision

In Uganda, antibiotic use is minimally regulated, which, combined with a struggling local health system, poses a health threat. In addition, pesticides are used increasingly in dairy farming. To boost milk yield, native Ankole cows were cross-bred with imported Holstein-Friesian species (the iconic black-and-white cows).

Read more from Wanqing Zhou, a research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute, originally published in the March issue on the Worldwatch Institute blog: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/herbs-help-dairy-farms-abandon-antibiotics/

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