Devon organic farm eliminates antibiotic use for mastitis

Antibiotic-free production from healthy, long-lived cows is what makes the team tick at Hethenhill Farm, where RABDF Gold Cup finalist Jonathan Gibbins runs a 440 cow organic herd. 

Whether it’s grazing, ration balance or parlour routine, every management decision is focused on avoiding antibiotics.

In fact, over the last three years the Hethenhill team has only used antibiotics three times in lactation – and not once for mastitis.

Farm Facts

  • An organic family farm run by Jonathan Gibbins and parents Geoff and Peggy
  • 930 acres
  • 440 cows
  • 8,100 litres a cow a year at 4.1% fat and 3.25% protein
  • 4,500 litres a cow a year from forage
  • 155,000 cells/ml average bulk somatic cell count
  • Cows calve all year round, 70% calving June to January
  • Low yielders receive grazed grass and parlour concentrate. High yielders buffer fed during grazing. May also receive freshly cut grass when grass growth drops
  • Winter diet – grass silage, wholecrop silage plus a meal

Antibiotic-free production allows organic milk supplier OMSCO access to the USA cheese market. However, contract requirement is not the only reason Mr Gibbins shies away from antibiotics.

“It gives you a sense of achievement to do it and pride in what you do. I wasn’t expecting cow health to improve, but it has. You have to be more proactive,” says Mr Gibbins, who is one of our Farmer Shareholders.

Since moving on to the OMSCO contract in 2019, mastitis cases have dropped from nine or 10 cases per 100 cows – to just four.

As part of udder health management, the herd is milk recorded every month and all cows with a high somatic cell count (SCC) of over 200,000 cells/ml are milk tested.

Cows testing positive for the contagious pathogen, staphylococcus aureus are put in a dedicated group, housed separately and milked after the main herd. “The prime method of transfer is on the milking machine so we’re not putting a clean cow on behind an infected one,” Mr Gibbins explains.

The team is also quick to identify the early signs of mastitis. Any cows with a swollen quarter are given non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and UdderMint and kept in the separate group. Following testing, cows will have their milk stripped two to six times a day to help remove infection. Any individuals that still have a hard quarter after two days receive a repeat treatment.

“I’ve found it’s a more effective way to treat them,” says Mr Gibbins. “I’m slightly cynical about how effective antibiotics are during lactation. I think cows do have quite a good self-cure rate.”

Mole Valley Feed Solutions’ Nutritionist, Dave Kittow regularly analyses fresh grass and grass silage and carefully balances the diet to optimise rumen health and performance. This also helps with dung consistency, which influences mastitis risk.

High levels of clover in grazing swards, combined with fresh grass growth and low fibre levels had traditionally created challenges with loose dung in the autumn. As a result, Mr Kittow suggested feeding organic X1 LIVE Yeast in the farm’s mineral pack, which also includes the correct levels of vitamin E and selenium to help the immune system and SCC.

Mr Gibbins adds: “From an environment point of view, the diet is probably the key thing in terms of keeping cows and cubicles clean. The yeast, along with other things, has helped the dung consistency and rumen health which all helps with forage utilisation and mastitis control.” He usually chooses to buy a combination of organic straights and compounds from Mole Valley Farmers, drawing on the advice of Alternative Feeds’ Trader, Francesca Metherell. “Her advice is excellent,” he says. “She’s very proactive in terms of advising when to buy. She contacts us if she thinks there’s any deals on. A few pounds saving on the amount we’re buying is very significant.” This year, he didn’t opt to buy his straights forward. As a result, Jonathan has been advised to feed an organic meal in the outside ration to complement the silage available. Mr Kittow explains: “Mole Valley Farmers buy well in advance to spread risk. Jonathan has benefitted from that this year, rather than relying on the very tricky spot market.”

Steps to prevent mastitis

  • Mattresses topped with a thin layer of sand which is refreshed three times a week
  • Hydramix Lime from Mole Valley Farmers applied to back of beds
  • Recycled water system flushes the slurry from the passageways six times a day
  • Hand-held teat cleaning brush with pre-milking disinfectant used to prepare teats and ADF used
  • “Meticulous” drying off procedure
  • Herd grazed in dedicated fields with lots of shade on hot days to avoid poaching and contamination risk

For more information on organic feed please talk to the Feed Team on 01278 444829