Caring for Dairy Cows: Milk and Antibiotics from a Veterinarian’s Point of View
Caring for their cows and producing high-quality milk are two top priorities for dairy farmers. Animal care plans, safety protocols and training programs are just some of the steps in place on dairy farms to ensure the milk produced is both wholesome and safe for us to drink. Dairy veterinarians play an important role in these steps, working with farmers and their employees to provide the best care possible for the cows, so, in turn, the cows can provide the best milk possible. We recently met with Dr. Jill Brester, a dairy veterinarian at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine and mother of two boys who works full time on a Michigan dairy farm and helps train the next generation of dairy veterinarians, to answer some common questions about animal care, the use of antibiotics on dairy farms, and milk safety.
As a veterinarian, how do you work with dairy farmers?
As a dairy veterinarian, I am completely engrossed in the industry, and work with dairy farmers on a multitude of different levels. The relationship between veterinarian and dairy farmer has changed and evolved over the last 15-20 years. Instead of focusing on treating individual cows that don’t feel well, we now put more focus on preventing the need for treatment to begin with. Because of this, it is my job to train employees, write protocols for common situations, analyze records, and work on herd-level, instead of individual cow, medicine issues. We work more on the herd level and focus on aspects of preventative medicine in order to decrease treatment of sick animals. I feel that if we end up with cows needing treatment, it is a failure.
I am in a unique situation working for Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. I not only get to work in the dairy industry, but also get to educate future veterinarians about dairy medicine and take steps toward improving agricultural literacy.
How does record keeping help ensure proper treatment of cows?
Record keeping is imperative to any dairy farm. It is important to know what happens to each cow during every stage of her life in order to ensure our milk is safe. We use technology to keep up-to-date records on all of our cattle, and there are many different programs available to keep accurate records on our farms. These records are also utilized to make educated decisions regarding foot health, pregnancy status, vaccinations, and treatment of illness. These records are vital to the safety of our end product as well as the health of the cow.
Why and how often are antibiotics used on dairy farms?
We work very hard on the herd level to prevent the need to treat an animal with antibiotics, however sometimes it is necessary. Antibiotics are prescribed and used on dairy farms only as needed, and only in cases that warrant their use. I firmly believe in utilizing evidence-based medicine when making decisions on how to care for dairy cows. If an animal gets sick, I must first figure out why she is sick and then treat her accordingly. If antibiotics are warranted, then they are used according to label.
Are there antibiotics in the milk?
Milk is highly regulated, and there are many protocols in place to ensure it is safe. When antibiotics are used, they do not end up in the milk or dairy products found in stores. Every antibiotic used has labeled milk withdrawal times set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning a treated cow’s milk has to be discarded and kept away from the food supply for a certain amount of time. During the time in which the cow is being treated with antibiotics, her milk is discarded and does not leave the farm. Once the cow is healthy and the withdrawal times have been met, we perform tests on the milk to be certain there are no residues in the end product. If there are no residues, her milk can be sold once again.
Every tank of milk that leaves the farm is also tested for any residues. Some farms have the ability to perform this test before the milk leaves the farm, and ALL milk is tested for antibiotic residue at the processing plant before it is unloaded from the semi. If a tank tests positive for any reason, the milk is dumped down the drain, and never enters the food supply.
This process ensures there are no antibiotics in your milk. It also ensures that cattle are humanely cared for during treatment. I play a huge role in both animal health as well as food safety.
What would you like people to know about antibiotic use on dairy farms?
I am quite discouraged with the ever-increasing incidence of “food bullying” originating from sources quite removed from where food is actually coming from. I am involved in the production of milk, whether it be through writing protocols, treating animals, or preventing disease, and it is important that I can assure my family the food I feed them is safe. I think that it is wonderful to have choices in the grocery store; whether you choose conventional milk, organic milk, or milk with a long shelf life it is my job to ensure that they are all safe to feed to my family and yours.
Are you confident in the milk we buy at the store?
I am not only a veterinarian, but a mom of two boys. I am very passionate about the dairy industry and am confident that the end product is safe for my growing family. I am proud to play an integral role in the production of a product that fills my refrigerator at home. I know the cattle I work with on a daily basis are treated humanely (as if they were my own) and their milk is safe. A common question I ask myself when making decisions is, “Would I feed this to my family?” If the answer is “no,” I must do something until the answer is “yes.”