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Sorry, we don’t sell antibiotics!

21 Jun 2022 | Mark Little


We know that preventative health is key to the sustainable use of veterinary medicines. In this blog, Mark Little, Senior Vice President of BVA Northern Ireland Branch and an RCVS Specialist in Cattle Health and Production, details his professional journey from general farm practice to his current role providing consultancy on preventative health. He explains why he now takes a hard line approach to antibiotics and includes some examples of how he works in a team of SQPs, RAMAs and nutritionists to achieve this.

Sorry, we don’t sell antibiotics!  Image

"Sorry, we don’t sell antibiotics!" This statement is partly true, the ‘we don’t sell antibiotics’ bit is true. However, the ‘sorry’ bit is not true as farmers already know that we don’t sell antibiotics. This is because the focus is on herd health, prevention rather than cure, and the sustainable use of veterinary medicines. Therefore, to drive this agenda we don’t sell antibiotics. I know this is a little ‘hard line,’ and I fully understand it should be prudent use of antibiotics rather than no use of antibiotics. I’m also lucky to be a role which allows me to do this, and recognise most veterinary practices will still need to provide antibiotics where appropriate.

However, let's contrast this with my previous jobs where I carried out large animal emergency calls, from timber tongue to tail amputations (nose to tail) and everything in between. When I discussed treatment protocols with enthusiastic vet students, I had a 5-point list of potential treatments, 1) Antibiotics, 2) Anti-inflammatory drugs, 3) Vaccines, 4) Hormones, and 5) Minerals and Vitamins. Not every case needed a medicine from all 5 groups, but it was a check list ensuring good medical care. Nowadays, antibiotics are not on my list, but what made me change my mind?

Time for a change

One day in 2012, I was looking through a farm’s records and discovered that I had treated more cows for metritis during that calving season than the calving season 5 years previous. Despite the farmer being very satisfied with the quality of vet work, I felt like I should be making things better, not just doing the same thing year after year.  Therefore, time for a change! After a while in pharmaceutical industry, I thought nutrition was the solution, so I completed a PhD on dairy cow nutritional immunology and worked for a global nutrition company for 5 years. My focus on nutrition was so strong that I travelled the world with a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, investigating the role of nutrition to help keep cattle healthy. However, the most important thing I learnt was that nutrition, although vitally important, is not the silver bullet!

The weakest link

Nutrition is part of the armoury to prevent disease along with genetics, management, and vaccination, and these cannot be considered on their own. For example, I’ve seen IBR vaccination failure because the vaccines were given in early lactation when the immune system was compromised. Equally, with the wrong management, nutrition can fail. For example, I’ve seen cows on DCAB diets getting milk fever because there was no feed in the calving pen.

Therefore, to have a broader impact on farms I started work with a local co-op in a consultancy role, helping the farmer shareholders find the weakest link on their farms to improve herd health through nutrition, management, and vaccinations. As this approach keeps livestock healthy it champions the sustainable use of veterinary medicines.

Preventative strategies

Examples of preventative strategies to use veterinary medicines sustainability include:

  • Working jointly with the in-house nutritionists, designing diets to help prevent disease such as milk fever, ketosis, grass tetany and urinary calculi
  • Training SQPs / RAMAs on the prudent use of anthelmintics including faecal egg counts, thereby protecting against the development of anthelmintic resistance
  • Routine farm calls completing herd health plans combining this with herd sampling to continuously monitor for endemic diseases and parasites
  • Advising on farm management such as colostrum, disinfectants, lameness and biosecurity
  • Fully investigating the aetiology of disease outbreaks (e.g., scour and respiratory disease) and using vaccines preventatively rather than antibiotics curatively

Close working relationship with farmers

New ways of working can be disconcerting for farmers therefore, we find it useful to support them the first time they do something new. For example, helping farmers take faecal samples for worm egg counts to give them peace of mind they are doing this correctly. Another example was when oral antibiotics for the prevention of watery mouth were discontinued, we helped farmers with ewe nutrition, colostrum management and disinfectant practices.

Farmers are aware that herd disease is costly, not only to treat but also because of lost milk yields and growth rates. The more we talk about preventative health and sustainable use of vet medicines, tangibly linking them with production losses, the more we are being asked to help and I would encourage you to do the same.

More information

For more information on responsible use of antibiotics, please check out:


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