Antimicrobial use in cattle

Since the 1950s antimicrobials have been used widely in farming.  The use of antimicrobials has proved invaluable for improving welfare and reducing morbidity in conditions such as bovine mastitis and lameness.  But their widespread use as growth promoters and for routine non-selective treatment of infections are major hazards for the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

In the UK and Europe, the use of antibiotics as antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) has been banned since 2006. However, in cattle, there is still some prophylactic and non-selective use on UK farms.

Beta-lactam antibiotics are one of the classes most frequently used in cattle. However, high-priority critically important antimicrobials (HP-CIA) such as 3rd and 4th-generation cephalosporins are also commonly used for the treatment of infections such as mastitis, and for uterine infections. Furthermore, in a previous report by DEFRA, it was found that 85% of dairy farmers admitted to using non-selective dry-cow therapy. These practices are liable to cause development antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

However, we have seen change in recent years, and a concerted effort has been made across dairy farming to increase awareness of the benefits of selective dry-cow therapy, and the use of teat sealants to prevent mastitis. These practices not only save farmers money by reducing blanket drug use, but with more targeted treatment will also reduce the risk of AMR development.

Additionally, due to the industry wide efforts of both farmers and veterinary professionals, there has been a reduction in the use of antimicrobials used in cattle and livestock in the UK, including a 75% overall reduction in the use of HP-CIAs, since 2014.  Looking toward the renewed RUMA targets and guidelines, we must continue to build a constructive relationship between vets and farmers. Better relationships between vets and farmers permit more-open discussions and allow advice to be sought on the best use of antimicrobials. This enables a joint effort to be made in the improvement of overall herd health to the benefit of antimicrobial stewardship.

For information on the renewed RUMA guidelines and targets please see:

Sources and recommended reading:

Alderton, S. (2015) Exclusive survey results: Use of antibiotics on UK dairy farms. Farmers Weekly. Available at: Accessed on 21st November 2020.

Higham, L.E. et al., (2018) A survey of dairy cow farmers in the United Kingdom: knowledge, attitudes and practices surrounding antimicrobial use and resistance. Vet Record. 183.

Ma, F. (2020) Use of antimicrobials in food animals and impact of transmission of antimicrobial resistance on humans. Biosafety and Health. In press. Available at:  Accessed on the 21st November 2020.

Hennessey, M. et al., (2020) Antimicrobial & antiparasitic use and resistance in British sheep and cattle: a systematic review. Preventative Veterinary Medicine. 185. 105174.

De Briyne, N. et al (2014) Antibiotics used most commonly to treat animals in Europe. The Veterinary Record. 175. 325-333.


Image of S. aureus in the presence of vancomycin courtesy of Henrik Strahl and Sandra Laborda Anadon – Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, Newcastle University.