Multi-resistance against antibiotics is a growing problem, and dairy farming is one of the contributors. A recent training on the use of medicinal plants for 24 veterinarians in dairy cooperatives in three Indian states revealed extensive and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in smallholder dairy, especially to control mastitis (udder infection). Medicinal plants provide new hope for smallholder dairy farmers to effectively improve animal health while reducing costs of treatment. Meanwhile it was shocking to find that even so-called 3rd and 4th generation antibiotics – that should be reserved for human use – are being used regularly by the veterinarians, and find their way into the food chain without any barriers. Another branch of the global human health threat of multi-resistant micro-organisms?


India is the world’s largest milk producer, accounting for 13-15% of the world’s total milk production. This milk is produced by cattle and buffalo in approximately 70 million Indian households. These are mostly small and marginal cattle farmers, or labourers without land. Around 11 million of them are organized in around 110.000 village dairy cooperatives or Dairy Cooperative Societies. Around 10% of the milk produced is delivered to some 400 dairy plants.

Smallholder dairy systems in India have evolved rapidly over the past decades, especially through the dairy farming policy Operation Flood started in 1973. In most dairy development programs modern technologies and crossbreeding with high-yielding breeds are introduced in dairy together with an extensive milk-marketing system. Besides the obvious advantages, there are also risks related to this strategy, such as the threats to human health due to indiscriminate use of antibiotics and other chemicals in dairy animals.

Course on medicinal plants for veterinarians

Between 15 and 19 April a week course was organised for 24 veterinarians working for dairy cooperatives and veterinary associations in 3 south-Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala) at the I-AIM training centre in Bangalore. This government supported institute in promoting local and Ayurvedic health practices, including an Ayurvedic hospital, research facilities, botanical gardens and training centre. The activities with dairy farming initiated in 2006.

This is part of a 3-year project ‘Training of trainers on popularising ethnoveterinary practices in order to improve milk quality in smallholder dairy farming‘ – co-funded by TTP (Technical Training Programme) in the Netherlands. This is a joint effort between I-AIM and the TamilNadu Veterinary and Animal Science University in Thanjavur, technically supported by Dutch Farm Experience. In total 150 veterinarians will be trained between 2013 and 2015, that have a total outreach of approximately 1.4 million smallholder farmers.

Mastitis most difficult condition to treat

The veterinarians in this batch expressed their severe concern with the high incidence of mastitis, and the increased multi-resistance of the antibiotics. Mastitis was indicated as the most difficult condition to deal with by 22 of the 24 veterinarians. The poor smallholder farmers are in distress when one of their 2 or 3 cows is affected by this disease – and the veterinarians therefore feel obliged to use the best possible treatment: increasingly using 3rd and 4th generation antibiotics, especially cephalosporines, but also cephalofloxines, enrofloxacines, ceftriaxone and cephalaxine. Milk quality and food safety are thus severely threatened.

It is for this reason that the veterinarians in the group welcomed the possible alternative in the form of medicinal plants. The veterinarians with years of field experience were most interested – as they have stood empty-handed all too often when mainstream antibiotics increasingly prove ineffective. The use of 3 commonly available elements (Aloe Vera, Curcuma longa and Calcium Hydroxide) was shown in theory and practice in a local community near the I-AIM training centre in Bangalore. The application of the herbs (after milking the quarter) has to be continued 8-10 times a day.

At the end of the course the veterinarians felt more confident to use the herbal mastitis treatment. Many of them indicated, however, that they need to try this out at small scale first – before confidently using it at larger scale. Their credibility as a veterinarian is at stake. So it was agreed to perform a follow-up of the cases treated by the veterinarians in the group.

Link with animal breeding policy?

What is interesting is that the majority of the vets in this group agreed that the extensive problems with mastitis and other diseases started with the crossbreeding policy in the 1980’s. Since then several states have  forbidden to use local bulls for natural service on dairy cows. Due to the continued artificial insemination (AI) the level of exotic blood in many cows is now well over 80%, sometimes nearing the 95%.

These animals face difficulties, especially due to feeding shortages during the calf-stage. When they start producing milk, productivity is quite low, between 2-5 litres per day. In order to push milk production farmers tend to give too much concentrated feeds – leading to common problems with claws, reproduction and (especially) mastitis.

Therefore, if the level of antibiotic use is to be reduced – medicinal plants may not be enough. Most veterinarians in the group agreed that in order to increase natural resistance of the animals a more strategic acceptance of local breeds in the breeding policy is also needed.

Milk-holidays – no milk is collected once a week

Another surprising issue is the fact that since 2012 two of the three states (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) there is a milk-surplus rather than a milk shortage. The Erode District Milk Producers Union in Tamil Nadu now has over 1000 metric tons of milk powder and butter in stock. This is very expensive and there are problems to find a good market-price for this. In an effort to control this, the milk is not collected from the farmers once a week – the so-called milk holidays – affecting farmer’s incomes.

Similar problems exist in several other Indian states, such as Guajarat and Andrha Pradesh. Meanwhile other states, such as Kerala, still face deficiencies. Milk from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is imported – but there is a wish to produce the milk needed within the own state. It was indicated that  in the face of the milk- and butter surplus a campaign to increase consumption of milk products is needed. Moreover, this milk excess puts new initiatives to increase milk production – such as the National Dairy Plan 2012-2027 – in another perspective.