Antibiotics in Agriculture

Can we reduce antibiotic usage?

The use of antibiotics to promote growth, increase feed efficiency and reduce mortality in indoor poultry farming is unsustainable, and has been implicated in the increase in antibiotic resistance in humans.

Why Focus on Antibiotics?

One of our key sustainable livestock principles is reducing dependency on veterinary medicines without jeopardizing the well-being of animals.

Antibiotics are widely used in healthy food-producing animals to promote growth and prevent disease. This practice contributes to the emergence and spread of resistant bacteria in both animal and human populations. Resistant microorganisms carried by food-producing animals can spread to humans through consumption of contaminated food, from direct contact with animals, or via the environment (e.g. contaminated water).  The global trade in animals and food greatly enhances the opportunities for the global spread of resistance.

The continued use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs hastens the emergence of drug-resistant strains. Ineffective infection control, poor hygiene and inappropriate food-handling conditions enable the further spread of resistance. Further, a reliance on antibiotics within a farming system would suggest that there are fundamental problems with the way animals are being managed and that changes are required that reduce the dependency.

In this section we will provide farmers with information and guidance from existing sources that will enable animals to be kept healthy and under the highest welfare conditions without the reliance of antibiotics and other anti-microbials. We will also provide guidance on the responsible use of anti-microbial drugs in situations where they are deemed necessary.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is resistance of a microorganism (including bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites) to a drug that was originally effective for treatment of infections caused by that micro-organism. Resistant microorganisms are able to withstand attack by antimicrobial drugs so that standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and there is an increased risk of the infection spreading.

Antimicrobial resistance threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of bacterial, parasitic, viral and fungal infections affecting humans and animals. New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading making this an increasingly serious threat to global public health.


Causes of antibiotic resistance, image from the World Health Organisation

Causes of antibiotic resistance, image from the World Health Organisation

Antibiotic dry cow therapy

The use of blanket antibiotic dry cow therapy is widespread but there are ways to target treat problematic cows and guidance on practical techniques that can help prevent cases of mastitis. See the mastitis page for more details.

The Responsible Use of Veterinary Medicines

AntibioticsThe responsible use of veterinary medicines is one of our key sustainable livestock practices. The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) define this as “using medicines as little as possible and as much as necessary”.

Traditionally, antibiotics in agriculture have been used to treat and cure sick animals (Therapeutic), to control disease spreading in groups of animals where some are already sick and others are at risk (Metaphylaxis) and to prevent disease or sickness in an otherwise healthy group of animals (Prophylaxis). A number of our key principles and practices are concerned with solving disease problems caused by husbandry by changing the management rather than through the use of preventive antibiotics.

Responsible use means:
– Minimizing disease risk so that less treatments are required. This requires emphasis on good health planning emphasizing preventive management such as good hygiene, properly ventilated buildings, effective biosecurity, appropriate vaccination programs based on evidence-based risk, appropriate nutrition, and the use of resistant breeds, low stocking rates and access to clean water.
– Treat sick animals in accordance with instructions on the label and from the farm’s veterinary surgeon;
– Only using antibiotics that are prescribed by a farm veterinarian;
– Ensuring that a full course of antibiotic treatment is administered and there is no under-dosing;
– Critically important antibiotics for human treatment should not be used as a first line treatment in animals, unless there is clear scientific justification to do so.
– Antibiotics should not be used as a preventive measure unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Avoiding Preventive Use of Antibiotics

Disease problems due to husbandry should be solved by changing the management rather than by the preventive use of antibiotics.

Preventive treatment with antibiotics in animals should:
– only be applied to animals diagnosed as being at high risk of bacterial disease
– only occur when prescribed by a veterinarian and on the basis of epidemiological and clinical knowledge
– not be applied routinely
– not be used to compensate for poor hygiene or inadequate husbandry conditions .

Critically important antibiotics for human treatment should not be used preventatively in animals or as the first line of treatment, unless there is clear scientific justification to do so.

Antibiotic dry cow therapy

Although not linked directly, there is a potential relation between intramammary antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance through the feeding of waste milk to calves.

Best Practices to Prevent Medicine Residues in Milk

General Guidelines

Best practice guidelines to prevent medicine residues in the bulk milk tank

Accidental Contamination of Milk

Click here for a flow chart on avoiding the contamination of milk with antibiotic residues

Procedures for Dry Cows

Click here for a flow chart to assist with dry cow management
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  • Livestock should be land-based and integrated with farm cropping enterprises
  • Animals should be provided with conditions that enable them to exhibit natural behaviors
  • Dependency on veterinary medicines should be reduced without jeopardizing the well-being of animals


outdoor access

Animals having outdoor access, shade, shelter, lighting and sufficient space for them to undertake free movement and to exhibit natural behaviors.


Using breeds and strains well-suited and adapted to the prevailing conditions.

Health Plan

Implementing herd and flock planning based on sound ecological practices and epidemiological knowledge.


Undertaking good practice with regard to biosecurity.

closed herds

Maintaining animals in closed herds and flocks and at stocking rates that enables free-movement, reduces risks of disease spread and minimizes environmental damage.

forage and grazing

Forage and grazing being the main source of nutrients for ruminants, and continuously available to non-ruminants.

production practices

Avoiding the use of mutilations as standard production practices.


Improved understanding and responsible usage of veterinary medicines.