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Selective Dry Cow Therapy: A Strategic Shift Toward Sustainable Dairy Farming

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As our understanding of antibiotic resistance deepens, new practices are being implemented to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use on dairy farms. One such practice is Selective Dry Cow Therapy (SDCT), a strategic shift from the traditional approach of blanket dry cow therapy (BDCT). This article will explore what SDCT is, the potential benefits and pitfalls, and how good dairy record-keeping can ensure its success.

What is Selective Dry Cow Therapy?

The dry period – the time when a dairy cow is not producing milk before her next calving – is a critical phase for her health and productivity in the next lactation cycle. Traditionally, all cows are given an antibiotic treatment at the end of lactation under BDCT to treat existing infections and prevent new ones, particularly mastitis.

However, with SDCT, this one-size-fits-all approach is replaced with a more targeted one. Only cows with a known or suspected udder infection at drying off are treated with antibiotics. Cows deemed healthy, or with low infection risk, don't receive antibiotics. Instead, a teat sealant should be used to physically prevent bacteria from entering the udder.

Benefits and Challenges of Selective Dry Cow Therapy

SDCT is gaining traction in the dairy industry for good reasons, offering numerous advantages, but it also presents challenges that require careful consideration and management. Here, we delve deeper into these benefits and potential obstacles.

The Benefits

  1. Reducing Antibiotic Resistance: Overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has been linked to the growing issue of antibiotic resistance, where bacteria evolve to resist the effects of antibiotics. By using antibiotics more judiciously through SDCT, dairy farmers can help mitigate this problem, contributing to the overall health of both animals and humans (Antibiotics: How much is too much?, 2018.)
  2. Cost Savings: Antibiotics come at a cost, and by reducing the use of these medications, farmers may save on expenses in the long run. It's also worth noting that healthier herds that require fewer interventions will likely have lower veterinary bills and increased productivity.
  3. Consumer Perception: With increasing awareness and concern over antibiotic use in the food chain, farms that can demonstrate lower antibiotic use without compromising animal health may find themselves more appealing to consumers. SDCT, therefore, can help align farming practices with growing consumer demand for responsible antibiotic use.
  4. Environmental Stewardship: Decreased antibiotic use means fewer antibiotic residues entering the environment. Thus, SDCT may contribute to more sustainable farming practices.
  5. Efficacy and Safety: A recent study published on May 12, 2023, provided substantial evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of SDCT. The research demonstrated that the implementation of SDCT, following an algorithm based on the herd's Bulk Milk Somatic Cell Count, Dairy Herd Improvement information, and each cow's clinical mastitis history, had no significant negative impact on udder health, milk yield, or culling hazard. Most importantly, this was achieved while substantially reducing antimicrobial usage (Lipkens, 2023).

The Challenges

While the benefits are substantial, implementing SDCT isn't without hurdles. These challenges mainly revolve around disease management and the initial setup of the new practice.

  1. Accurate Infection Identification: It's crucial to correctly identify which cows require treatment and which do not. Inaccurate identification can lead to under-treatment, resulting in sick cows and potentially higher mastitis rates. Farmers need to use effective tools, such as somatic cell count testing and good record keeping, and collaborate closely with a veterinarian for accurate assessments.
  2. Effective Management Practices: Without robust management practices and proper hygiene, the risk of mastitis may increase. Implementing SDCT successfully requires attention to cow cleanliness, proper nutrition, and stress management, among other factors.
  3. Training and Time Investment: Transitioning to SDCT requires an initial investment of time and resources for training farm staff in new procedures and data analysis. This upfront cost, though potentially recouped through the benefits of SDCT, can be a hurdle for some farms.
  4. Regulatory and Industry Guidance: Dairy farmers need to stay abreast of regulations and industry guidelines regarding antibiotic use and animal welfare. This requires active engagement with regulatory updates, veterinary advice, and industry best practices.
  5. Evidence-Based Decision Making: The same 2023 study referenced above found that successful implementation of SDCT can be achieved without bacteriological culturing (Lipkens, 2023). However, it does underscore the need for accurate, extensive data collection, and analysis, particularly regarding somatic cell counts, DHI information, and each cow's mastitis history.

While the benefits of SDCT are clear and significant, the challenges underscore the need for careful planning and management when transitioning to this approach. A successful shift towards SDCT calls for a deep understanding of the farm's individual herd health dynamics, stringent record-keeping, effective collaboration with veterinary professionals, and robust farm management practices.

The Role of Record-Keeping in Successful SDCT

Effective record-keeping plays a pivotal role in successful SDCT. The key question every dairy farmer needs to consider is, "Which cows should I treat?" Here is where the DHI-Plus herd management software proves invaluable.

Research has shown that it's beneficial to consider treatment for all cows meeting three critical criteria:

  1. The cow had a case of mastitis during the previous lactation.
  2. The cow had a somatic cell count greater than 250,000, indicating a potential or existing udder infection.
  3. The cow is a high-producing cow, yielding more than 80 pounds of milk.

By employing DHI-Plus, you can generate a report that aids in identifying the cows that meet these criteria. This software assists in determining which cows are most likely to benefit from antibiotic treatment at the end of their lactation period, helping dairy farmers make informed decisions based on individual cow health and productivity records.

But how do you use DHI-Plus to create such a report? We've got you covered. Visit our Selective Dry Cow Therapy webpage for a detailed video guide on how to create a selective dry cow treatment report using DHI-Plus. This tool not only helps with making the correct decision on which cows to treat but also highlights when it's time to dry them off, making it an essential component of your herd management toolkit.

In essence, DHI-Plus provides a powerful, data-driven solution to enable the successful implementation of SDCT, contributing positively to both herd health and sustainable dairy farming practices. By combining diligent record-keeping with such technology, dairy farmers are better equipped to navigate the challenges of SDCT and fully reap its benefits.

Success in Selective Dry Cow Therapy

Success in SDCT doesn't just mean fewer antibiotics used; it also means maintaining, if not improving, the overall health and productivity of the herd. This success looks like a well-managed herd with low incidences of mastitis, effective use of antibiotics only when necessary, and overall lower costs associated with disease treatment.

Success also means keeping up with evolving regulations and societal expectations regarding antibiotic use in food production. As consumers become more aware of these issues, dairy farmers implementing SDCT and reducing antibiotic use can position themselves as proactive, responsible providers, adding value to their products in the marketplace.

Selective Dry Cow Therapy represents a significant shift in dairy farming towards more sustainable and responsible practices. Through careful implementation and rigorous record-keeping, dairy farmers can reap the benefits of SDCT, contributing positively to the health of their herd, their business, and the wider community.

Watch how to create a report in DHI-Plus for SDCT

Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness to provide the most current insights into Selective Dry Cow Therapy and its role in modern dairy farming.

[1] Dr. Scott Tripp, "Antibiotics: How much is too much?," 2018.
[2] Z. Lipkens, "Impact of Selective Dry Cow Therapy on Antimicrobial Consumption, Udder Health, Milk Yield, and Culling Hazard in Commercial Dairy Herds," 2023.