Effective Reduction of Antibiotic Use in Dairy Farming through Ethnovet Medicine as Part of an Integrated Livestock Health Approach

The international network organized within the Natural Livestock Farming Foundation has developed an effective methodology to support farmers to reduce their use of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs, in both smallholder and large-scale dairy systems. It is now clear that this does not only improve milk quality, but also the quantity of milk, farm income, environment, and an up to 87% reduced antibiotic use  

By Katrien van’t Hooft

Executive Director Foundation for Natural Livestock Farming (NLF) 

Director Dutch Farm Experience

Effective Reduction of Antibiotic Use in Dairy Farming through Ethnovet Medicine as Part of an Integrated Livestock Health Approach


In the world-wide quest for dairy modernization the focus on crossbreeding and productivity increase of dairy cattle has, besides enhanced milk production, also resulted in high use of agro-chemicals. The use of antibiotics for common cattle diseases, such as udder infection and diarrhoea, is widespread. This contributes to the global threat of anti-microbial resistance (AMR).

Natural Livestock Farming approach

Since 2014 farmers, livestock scientists and veterinarians from Ethiopia, Uganda, India and the Netherlands have joined forces under the umbrella of the Natural Livestock Farming foundation (NLF).

This international network on knowledge development for livestock health is re-valuing time-tested methods, such as use of medicinal plants and strategic use of local breeds, to be applied in a modern context. NLF combines knowledges from various backgrounds including farmer knowledge, western veterinary science and Indian Ayurveda science.

The NLF Foundation improves cattle health on basis of the NLF 5-layered approach (van’t Hooft et al., 2017) comprising of:

  • Appropriate management of animals, farm and soils
  • Strategic use of local breeds, strategic crossbreeding
  • Ethnovet Medicine: use of herbs and natural products
  • Food quality improvement and control
  • Better farm income through cost reduction and direct marketing

NLF core activities are action research, exchange of best practices, and training. The combination of bottom-up experimentation and international peer to peer exchange is additional to existing initiatives in the field of AMR control. This opens up opportunities that more conventional livestock development programs fail to unlock, providing opportunity for increased farm income, better child nutrition, food safety & security, as well as improved environment. 

Results in smallholder dairy system

Ethnovet medicine as part of the NLF 5-layer approach is gradually being adopted, especially within countries with smallholder dairy farmers. The main example being India, the largest dairy producer in the world, based on 98% zero-grazing smallholder dairy farmers with 2-5 cows.

Over the past decade NLF India (a collaboration between GLOHMSIWA and Trans Disciplinary University TDU) has trained a total 30.000 farmers and 2000 veterinarians on efficient use of herbs for cattle health, also known as ethno-veterinary practices. (M.N.B. Nair, 2019)

Since 2017 the method is adopted by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). Through an on-line reporting system[1] the empirical data of more than 556,000 cases of 30 bovine diseases cured with herbal medicine were recorded. An overall average cure rate of 82% was registered, as well as an 87% reduction of antibiotic use within two years after the training.

NLF in Ethiopia (headed by Ethiopian Society of Animal Production ESAP), implemented an action research based on the NLF approach in two zero-grazing smallholder dairy communities. Experts from NLF India headed a training on the use of medicinal plants (mainly kitchen herbs), while organizations collaborating with NLF Netherlands guided training on laboratory skills and calf management. In two years, the approach has shown significant improvement in milk quality (8% antibiotic residue reduction) and quantity (over 50% increase), farm income (33% increase), while calf mortality was reduced by 60%. Average costs for cattle health were reduced by 20%. The outcomes of this pilot will have a bearing in supporting the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture in improving milk quality and to scale up the strategy into various dairy programs.

The initial focus of NLF in Uganda (headed by the Lake Mburo Farmers Cooperative Society) was on natural control of ticks and tick-borne diseases amongst smallholder ranging cattle. An herbal recipe based on local plants was developed by experts from NLF India and tried out in 2017-2018. In recent years the society has also focused on diversifying farm activities including value addition and local marketing of dairy products. 

Results in large-scale dairy

Since the start of NLF in the Netherlands in 2015, around 400 farmers and 50 veterinarians have joined the activities. The antibiotic use for mastitis in the dairy sector used to be high, with dry cow treatment a common practice. Since 2014 a one-to-one relationship between farmers and veterinarians on the use of antibiotics was enforced by the government, with mandatory (national) registration of antibiotic use. As a result, the use of antibiotics in the total livestock production systems was reduced to around 70% compared to 2009, though the decrease is now stagnating.

In the Dutch dairy sector increased use by farmers of ready-made natural products was one of the major changes for mastitis prevention and cure. Moreover, farmers started to re-introduce herbs in the cattle feed and ray-grass monoculture grasslands. This exposed the lack of knowledge amongst farmers and veterinarians, both about herbal grassland management and the safety of herbal products. Since 2018 NLF in the Netherlands has trained farmers and veterinarians on the safe use of herbal products and herbal grassland management. The Dutch government has invested in the spread of knowledge on natural remedies via so-called Barn-books (Groot et al., 2021). 

Ethnovet medicine for improving milk quality

In dairy development the main focus has been on maximising cattle productivity and milk quantity. At this point in time the crisis with AMR obliges the sector to look beyond this, and focus on both milk quantity and milk quality. Meanwhile, knowledge and skills about practical ways to reduce the use of antibiotics at farm level without harming cattle health and wellbeing are lacking.

The strategic collaboration headed by NLF has brought about a road map on improving cattle health and milk quality. Now that proof of concept about the NLF approach including ethnovet medicine is available it is time for upscaling it into mainstream dairy policies, extension and education. For this, NLF is reaching out to NGO’s, government, research institutes and funding agencies, while organizing webinars, field level pilots and international exchanges.



M N Balakrishnan Nair. “Ethno-Veterinary Sciences and Practices for Reducing the use of Antimicrobial and Other Veterinary Drugs in Veterinary Practices”. EC Veterinary Science RCO.01 (2019): 16-17.

Katrien van’t Hooft, Maria Groot and Getachew Gebru 2017. Natural Livestock Farming: Piloting a Strategy to Improve Milk Quality and Reduce Anti-Microbial Resistance. Appro Poult Dairy & Vet Sci. 1(3). APDV.000514

Groot, M.J., Berendsen, B.J.A., Cleton, N.B.2021. The Next Step to Further Decrease Veterinary Antibiotic Applications: Phytogenic Alternatives and Effective Monitoring; the Dutch Approach. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8,709750


[1] Information Network for Animal Productivity & Health (INAPH),  https://www.nddb.coop/resources/inaph