Five Farmer Action Groups have been established across the South West of England as part of my PhD and I am following their progress as the groups work towards a practical set of actions to reduce their reliance on antimicrobials. The Farmer Action Groups are modelled on the Stable School methodology begun in Denmark over 10 years ago by Mette Vaarst. The Stable Schools were a great success and empowered Danish organic dairy farmers to create their own practical action plans to reduce antibiotic usage on farm.
Throughout my training as a vet, it has been drilled into me that veterinarians are animal health experts and by giving advice to farmers to improve the health of their herd and productivity of their business, real change can be made. This is certainly true in some respects but definitely not the whole picture.
I quickly realised as a practicing vet that I wasn’t making quite the impact on farms as I had hoped. Why was my advice not being heeded? What could I do and say to make the farmer listen to me? It became apparent that farmers love to learn from other farmers.
The groups consist of 5-8 farms with 1-3 farmers from each farm attending each meeting. The structure of the meetings is centred around a farm walk, where the host farmer showcases his/her farm with the spotlight being on disease treatments, prevention and antimicrobial use.
Before each meeting I compile a medicine review for the host farm based on vet sale data. This is used as a bench mark of where each farmer is in regards to antibiotic use at the start of the project and also as a discussion point at the meeting.
Everyone gets an opportunity to talk about their farm and what has been happening between meetings. Interestingly, this is the time when participants voice any changes on farm in terms of antibiotic usage. Some examples are re-designing calf housing to reduce the risk of respiratory disease and hence antibiotic treatments, swapping from antibiotics that are critically important to human health to first-line products, using more anti-inflammatory products, and improving colostrum management.
The host summarises their system and I highlight the key points from the medicine review. The medicine review has been quite a focal point for the groups as 1) participants seem keen to know how much antibiotic and other medicines they use and 2) there is a lot of talk in the media etc. about the classes of antibiotic, critically important antibiotics, and ways to measure usage.
I am finding farmers are keen to know this information and are struggling to get it. There is still much debate as to which metric is best for measuring antibiotic use and they all seem to have drawbacks. As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure!
I visit the farm prior to them hosting and the plan of action for the day is decided in collaboration with the farmer. What do you want to showcase? What are your major concerns?
After the walk, we run a group discussion activity. These can vary; from sticky note exercises, to farmers drawing maps of the farm they have just been around, to using score charts. The aim of the discussion is to produce a practical action plan for the host farmer to ultimately reduce antibiotic use. The host will accept/disregard suggestions as they see fit.
So far, the Farmer Action Groups have sparked a series of on-farm changes that the participants have thought up and implemented themselves. This is what is key. Examples include having more discussions with their vets about which antibiotics are used on farm and why, sparking long chats over respiratory disease and vaccinations. Some farmers have increased the frequency at which the foot trimer visits so as to pick up lameness early and prevent treating with antibiotics. Calf health has been a hot topic, ensuring their cattle get the best start in life.
I am optimistic this form of peer-to-peer learning is a great way of empowering farmers resulting in practical on-farm change for the benefit of cattle and humans. The next step is informing policy on antibiotic usage on farm and how this research can help!
If you would like to find out more or get involved, please contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.