In the news today is a new report about deaths attributed to infections due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The report says that 33,000 people across the EU died from infections that were resistant to antibiotics in 2015, with 2,100 of those deaths in the UK.
It is widely acknowledged that livestock farming, as a whole, uses far too many antibiotics, indeed last month the European parliament voted to restrict the use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals in a bid to halt the spread of these superbugs.
As you might expect, we’ve been aware of the issue of antibiotic-resistance for a long time and have massively reduced the use of antibiotics on our farm over the past twenty years. But we think we can do even better than that. Our previous blog described our work to create high biodiversity on our farm. This blog looks at the unseen web of life, the microbial world, the ‘bugs’ that live invisibly alongside us on every surface we touch.
As the cows and calves are about to come back inside for the winter we are busy populating the cow and calf accommodation with ‘good’ bugs. This means daily doses of good bugs into the drinking water and running around the shed with a small mister – the kind of spray more commonly seen in greenhouses for tending to plants.
The ‘good’ bugs that we are applying are a bit like probiotics. They come in a liquid solution that smells like it’s come out of a washing machine full of dirty socks. So at least we know it’s full of something! Apparently they are in a dormant form – spores – and when they hit the ground they grow and spread and compete with the resident bugs, many of whom are ‘bad’ and when not actually causing disease are constantly challenging the immune systems of the cattle.
We know these bad bugs are there because a couple of months ago we had a full analysis done with swabs, labs and microscopes – the works! To be honest it didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know – indoor livestock housing, no matter how good, is a perfect breeding ground for microbes.
So the idea is that we saturate the water and living areas with these good bugs and they will eventually smother out the bad ones. This should mean our winter indoor disease challenge should drop away and the cows and calves can lead healthier, more productive lives. Of course the bad bugs never quite disappear, lurking in dark nooks and crannies waiting to leap out should we forget to keep the good bug populations topped up all winter.
Fanciful? We don’t think so. The approach we are taking by swamping our indoor cattle housing with good bacteria is exactly the same approach that is starting to happen in hospitals to help control antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This technology has been used in hospitals in Canada where MRSA and C-dificile have become insurmountable problems, and it has worked. We don’t have a problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but we believe that taking a proactive approach to managing the microbial ‘health’ of our livestock housing will reduce our need for antibiotics further.
The real point to this story is that it is nature and natural systems, over billions of years, that has got us to this point in time. It has largely been humanity’s belief that we can do it better than nature that has got the planet into the mess it’s currently in.
In our own very simple experience on our farm over the past twenty years, it has been a revelation to find that we can produce almost as much food as we did when we were non-organic, but without putting all that big pharma crap into our soils, our crops, our animals and our environment.
By studying and better understanding these bugs, and using that knowledge to harness that natural power, we are creating a healthier, more natural environment for our animals, and yet we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible.
***Photo above shows our winter housing (although the photo was taken during the summer) as seem from our viewing gallery during a farm tour. We have a novel system based on a mattress bed that equates in comfort to field conditions and single, plastic wand, dividers that allows cows to spread out on their sides, as they would on pasture. It requires a lot more space per cow than the more typical steel cubicles but is clearly liked by the cows - we'll write a bit more on indoor housing once the cows come in for the winter.
*Update: You can read more about our winter housing here.
*Update: A few months on, David has written an update on the results of the 'good bacteria' programme here.