Tag Archives: livestock

How are antibiotics used in cattle? What room is there for improvement?

“Who would want to eat beef, especially when you consider all the antibiotics and growth hormones used in raising the cattle.”

Actual comment that represents many online article comments.

General consumer sentiment on beef today? Yes or No?

Antibiotic Use in Livestock and Resistance
Image via: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

If so, what can we do to change this? And I’m not looking for the easy “Buy Local” or “Know Your Farmer” statements because 1) that’s an easy answer, 2) local food doesn’t always determine quality of farming/ranching practices, and 3) I firmly believe the use of antibiotics, hormones and other tools is mispercieved by the non-ag public.

This isn’t me denying that improvements in antibiotic or hormone use can be made, but honestly I’m kinda sick and tired of seeing all the negativity directed toward the livestock industries for this subject. To take a closer look at it, I spent much of my Christmas week at home working with my dad and we had a few conversations about antibiotic use in our family’s cattle auction. My dad does use antibiotics frequently in our yearling cattle that travel through the auction barn. It is a high-stress environment where many cattle arrive not weaned, are sometimes hauled in poor or cold/hot weather conditions, and are co-mingled with many other cattle while at the barn. When an animal comes in that has not been exposed to other animals, there’s not a whole lot we can do to keep those germs from spreading when other cattle come in contact with that animal or the pen it was in. It’s kind of like bringing a group of kids together for a kindergarten class.

My dad does spend a fair amount of time encouraging and trying to educate farmers in our market area on the importance of Best Management Practices to improve cattle immune system health – which include a sound vaccination program, proper nutrition and mineral supplement programs and low stress weaning strategies. But we cannot make those farmers implement those management practices, even when we do explain the economic advantages to better animal care. It’s their business and their management decisions.

Our business is not just a cattle auction. My dad turns cattle out on the several hundred acres of pastures we have leased in the area. He or people who he has hired, check on the cattle every single day, feeding them hay or feed as needed, and making sure they are healthy. The cattle will remain on pasture until they are at a weight large enough to send out West to the feedlots where they will be fed to a finish weight for slaughter.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the cattle my dad receives have endured stressful conditions, whether it be from weaning, transport in poor weather conditions, or co-mingling with new cattle. When this is the case, he may utilize an antibiotic treatment in a metaphylactic method – meaning animals in a group designated as high-risk for getting sick or experiencing an illness outbreak will receive a proper dose of an antibiotic as prescribed by the veterinarian who my dad talks to on a regular basis. This is not unlike the program I followed when working at the feedlots in Texas.

Giving these animals, who have been identified as high-risk for getting sick, a proactive treatment, eliminates the need for most antibiotic treatments in the weeks following. That significantly reduces the number of cattle that get sick later, which reduces the overall amount of antibiotics my dad must use on his cattle. The cattle recover more quickly from the previous stresses and get off to a healthier and better start in the next phase of their life. This reduces the amount of time my dad must spend handling the cattle and allows him to do more taking care of the other cattle, land, and help others do the same.

What would happen if the use of metaphylactic antibiotic treatment was removed from my dad’s farming operation? He might have to adjust his management style to reduce more stress on the animals, but he only has limited control on what happens to the cattle prior to receiving them from other farmers. He would likely have more cattle become chronically sick and die by not being able to proactively manage illness in the cattle he receives. We also need more cattle owners to understand the importance of and implement BMPs to reduce the stress on animals or to ensure they have a strong immune system.

Are there ways other than metaphylactic antibiotics to manage illness my dad’s cattle? Yes. But he uses far less antibiotics than what is perceived in the sentiment described at the top of this post. We all need to make adjustments in our management tools to continue being progressive, but we need to be sure and look at the larger picture and find out the reality of what actually happens before we start pointing fingers. Antibiotic usage can be reduced in livestock operations, but we do not need to let the pendulum swing too far to the other side due to strong emotions and fear marketing from journalists.

(And yes, this is a very simplistic view of the topic. But it is just one perspective in a much larger conversation)

To learn more about the use of antibiotics in livestock and the effect on meat safety, check out these links:


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CNN Eatocracy: ‘Frostbite on their teats’ and other cold weather farming issues

Despite all the cold during the past few weeks, farmers and ranchers across the country have been out and about, taking care of their livestock, and getting things done on the farm and ranch. I wrote an article that looked at several of these cold weather tasks that was published on CNN Eatocracy yesterday. It was published without many of the links to the farmers’ blogs, so I thought I would post it here. Let me know if you’ve seen other ag blog posts talking about working in the bitterly cold weather. And hop on over to CNN Eatocracy and join in the comments section.

cows in the snow

Last year we talked about the fact that there is no such thing as a snow day on the farm or ranch. Livestock must still be fed, equipment must still be maintained, and preparations for the next growing season continue. All of that work becomes much more difficult when the mercury drops well below zero degrees.

The livestock take priority for many farmers and ranchers in these situations. Preparations for the storm include making sure all supplies are on hand, generators are maintained, equipment is prepared to start in very cold conditions, and extra feed is close by in the event that travel is impaired. Despite all the preparations, it is difficult to be ready for everything that will occur when the weather turns for the worse.

Podcast: Farmers go to extremes to keep their livestock healthy during weather extremes. Dr. Michelle Arnold joins Ray Bowman on Food and Farm to talk about caring for lactating livestock in winter. Click here to listen.

For dairy farmers, the cows must still be milked every day, no matter the weather. Minnesota Organic Dairy farmers Tim and Emily Zweber explained how important it is to provide a sheltered barn in -54 degree wind chills. Cows that do not stay in the warm sand beds may get frostbite on their teats. A very uncomfortable situation to say the least.

Patrick Mess in Wisconsin has been bringing the newborn calves into the shop for shelter and affixing doors on the hutches for older calves to protect them from the -20 degrees temperatures. This goes along with making sure the milking parlor stays warms and functional for every milking.

Even in eastern Kansas, the Heim dairy farm family experienced -30 degree wind chills. David and Jennifer were working hard to provide warm bedding in the barns for their cows and calves despite tractors not starting in the cold.

Most beef cattle ranchers will not bring their cattle indoors. However, if calving is near, a newborn may end up in the house overnight. Cattle are incredibly resilient and are able to stay warm through thick winter hair coats that act as insulation. As long as they are able to stay dry and find shelter from the wind, like a shed or trees, cattle will stay warm.

Cattle produce body heat from digestion of hay and forages in their rumen (large stomach compartment) and are able to stay warm in most conditions. One of the main challenges in this weather is keeping water sources thawed. As Kansas rancher Debbie Blythe shows, even the no-freeze water tanks ice over when it drops below zero.

For smaller animals like turkeys, chickens, and pigs, keeping warm can be more of a challenge. This is where it really pays off to have barns that retain heat well. Even when wind chills dropped to -26 on the Olson family farm in Minnesota, Carolyn’s pig barns never dropped below 73 degrees.

In Ohio, the Wildman family raises pigs and must make sure that generator power sources are ready for when power goes out on their rural farm. Extra feed supplies must be on hand when roads become impassible so farm from town.  Even in Iowa, turkey farmers like the Olthoff family are working to keep their livestock barns warm and insulating feed and water sources to make sure nothing freezes up.

bull in the snow

Despite all the preparation that may occur, not everything will go right on the farm and ranch when it gets this cold. Diesel tractors will not start, equipment will break, and a water line will freeze. The farmers and ranchers are in the fields and barns, working around the clock, waiting for things to warm back up.

Oh, and we did not even mention the bread and milk grocery run! Hopefully the farmers and ranchers remember to stop for a bite to eat and keep themselves warm as well.

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Ask A Farmer: Use of Antibiotics in Cattle Feedlots

Antibiotic Use in Livestock and Resistance
Image via: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

Last week, I brought forward some Food For Thought on the issue of antibiotic use in livestock. The concerns surrounding an increase in antibiotic resistance seem to raise a lot of emotion and controversy around our food supply, just as the use of other feed additives, chemicals, herbicides, and countless other technologies and applications of science. I have addressed some of these subjects as they relate to beef cattle production in my Ask A Farmer series.

When I asked others involved in livestock production to share their experience with the use of antibiotics, I had a few replies. Andrew Goodrich was one of the first to respond with a lengthy answer, so I will share some of his responses. We haven’t agreed during more than a few conversations online, but I have to respect his experience in the field. Andrew has worked on several cattle feedlots in the Northwest and Canada and has a first-hand point of view on how antibiotics are used in cattle production.

I have spent much of my life doing business with and working in the cattle feedlots, as explained in many previous posts, but I think it will be good to share another perspective from someone else involved in the business.

Are feedlot cattle given antibiotics through their feed?

Ionophores are probably the most commonly used. You will find them in yards that feed 100,000 head and yards that feed 50 head. They are growth promotants, but the advantages to animal health are often overlooked. They prevent bloat and acidosis. Both of these events happen incredibly fast and are often fatal to cattle. The worst wreck I’ve ever experienced happened when 5,000 yearlings were put on hot ration without monensin. In the end, we lost 50 animals to grain overload. Ionophores also prevent coccidiosis, which can be detrimental to an animals and performance.

Ionophores are classified as an antibiotic, but they are not therapeutic antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is an increasing concern in public discourse. However, the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of ionophore use is not well supported for a number of reasons: ionophores have never been (nor are likely to be) used as antimicrobials for humans and ionophores have a very different mode of action from therapeutic antibiotics. Read more from University of Florida.

Medicated feed (Chlorotetracycline; CTC) is another tool we use to treat cattle. We can use it to extend antibiotic coverage in fresh calves, treat illness associated with ration transitions, and to aid in the treatment of a large number of sick animals at any time during feeding period.

Do all cattle in the feedlot receive CTC medicated feeds?

In some yards, all cattle receive CTC. It really depends on the type of cattle, time of year, and how an outfit decides to use it. When I worked in Washington, all cattle received it once as they went through the ration transitions. If at any time during the feeding period we noticed excessive coughing and nasal discharge, we would use CTC again, as well as exercise to turn them around.

Do feedlot cattle receive any injections of antibiotics as a preventative measure?

antibiotics fed to cattle in a feedlot
CTC medicated feed additive in the bunk for cattle

Antibiotics are also used for the prevention of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). Cattle are prey animals and incredibly stoic. They survive by hiding illness from anything the perceive as a threat. Combine this with a lack of pen riders, and the need for metaphylaxis on arrival becomes very necessary. In our yard, all high risk fall and winter placed calves receive tulathromycin on arrival to help get them through the most stressful time of the feeding period.

What do you mean by “high risk” cattle?

We define high risk calves as freshly weaned animals sourced through a sale barn. They are stressed from weaning and are exposed to bacteria and viruses from many different operations. These are prime conditions to create a sick animal.

When do feedlot cattle receive antibiotic treatments for sickness?

The last way we use antibiotics is for individual animal treatment. This could be for anything from BRD to footrot or acidosis. In our yard, sick cattle are pulled by cowboys and brought to the hospital, where we use a thermometer, stethoscope, and visual assessment to diagnose and determine the severity of an animals illness.

How do you determine which antibiotic treatment feedlot cattle receive?

We also use diagnostic trees to pinpoint lameness in the animals. After the appropriate antibiotic is administered, the animals either return to their home pen or stay in a recovery pen, depending on their condition. We have about 10 different antibiotics in our selection, although about 90% of critters respond to one treatment.

What is the maximum number of times an animal will get treated with antibiotics? When do you decide to stop treating the animal?

cattle feedlot antibiotics
Fresh cattle in a feedlot often receive a lot of hay/roughage. Antibiotics isn’t the only method used to keep animals healthy. Mostly it is wise management.

Typically, an animal will receive no more than 3 or 4 treatments (only 1% of animals ever get to this point). However, if we think the animal will respond and improve, we will treat as many times as necessary. When we hear consolidation and referred sounds in the lungs, an animal is determined to be chronic and treatment is either ceased or altered, depending on treatment history, condition, and amount of consolidation in the lung.

Cattle feedlots are the last step in beef production before slaughter. How do you make sure antibiotics do not end up in our beef supply?

Regardless of how an animal receives antibiotics, they are entered into the computerized record keeping system. This helps administer the proper dosage, track an animals progress, and observe proper withdrawal times. Every antibiotic has its withdrawal right on the bottle. We enter it in the computer and every time an animal receives treatment, its “clear date” is displayed on the treatment, movement, and shipping programs. Before a pen is harvested, we check withdrawals and remove any animals if necessary.

One last question. I often get the response of “Well, if you didn’t have these animals in such a crowded place, they wouldn’t have to receive antibiotics.” How would you respond to someone saying that?

I love cattle, but they are one of the most poorly designed creatures on the face of the Earth.  A vet once described them to me as a car with 4 engines and one radiator. There will be animals that get sick and require antibiotics regardless of where they are. Also, land is valuable and scarce. Around here, 160 acres goes for 1.4 million dollars. We can produce much more protein sowing that to corn or barley and feeding that to cattle than we could turning cattle out on that land.

cattle feedlot antibiotics
The ultimate destination for cattle in feedlots is the beef slaughter plant. We take that responsibility of producing safe beef very seriously.

I hope that Andrew’s insight has given you a glimpse of the complexity that goes into taking care of cattle in a feedlot. It is important to note that many conditions seen inside a feedlot (CAFO) are also seen when cattle are raised on pasture. As a person who has been there and worked alongside feedlot pen riders and veterinary crews, it is not an easy task and is hard work in all the weather elements mother nature brings. Taking care of their cattle is also first priority among most of these men and women and I cannot even begin to understand some of the misperceptions and hatred that exist toward the folks who dedicate their lives to raising cattle for our beef supply. The feedlots are the last step in raising cattle for beef prior to slaughter and a sector of the business which is underrepresented in food dialogues occurring today. Thank you Andrew for sharing your experience with us.

Do you have questions about antibiotics, feed additives, or any other aspects of livestock production? Feel free to leave a comment below or send me a private message through the Contact page.

Are you a livestock producer? When was the last time you took the opportunity to share your experiences on using antibiotics or other tools in livestock production? Please, send me a note or an entire guest post. I am more than willing to share your experience with my readers.

Is Antibiotic Resistance due to Livestock drug use?

Antibiotic Use in Livestock and Resistance
Image via: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

One of the most frequent questions I receive relative to livestock production often includes some aspect of antibiotic use. This has been a hot-topic in the food and farm dialogues over the past few years and one that draws a lot of criticism from consumers concerned about antibiotic resistance. Are farmers and ranchers going to step up and share how they use antibiotics? Or will they continue letting someone else share that story?

The one thing that most of us can agree on is that this leads to a complex conversation that is difficult to understand. Antibiotic resistance is also something the science and medical communities have been investigating for some time. Below is a release from the National Institute for Animal Agriculture following a recent symposium on the subject at hand in Kansas City.

I have talked about antibiotic use previously on my blog using my experience working with cattle on ranches and in feedlots. There was also a great discussion on the topic on my Facebook page. I encourage you to take a look and to the farmers: Ask yourself, when was the last time you made an effort to explain to concerned consumers why and how you utilize antibiotics in livestock production. Consider this an invitation to send me a guest post. My readers would love to hear your side of the story.

Antibiotic Resistance Complex, Open to Misinterpretation

KANSAS CITY, MO.—The sharing of science-based antibiotic use and resistance information continued among experts and leaders from the animal, human and public health communities during the “Bridging the Gap Between Animal Health and Human Health” symposium sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and conducted Nov. 12-14, in Kansas City, Mo. Adding to the symposium’s insightful, transparent discussions were presentations by media and consumer advocacy group representatives as well as questions generated by symposium attendees.

“Antibiotic resistance has been called the single most complex problem in public health, and this symposium provided respective health communities and disciplines a platform where they shared their latest research findings,” states Dr. Nevil Speer, co-chair of the symposium and a professor at Western Kentucky University.

“This year’s antibiotic use and resistance symposium not only shed additional light on this often polarized topic but we identified common ground so a collective path forward that serves the best interests of all parties can be forged.”

The 170-plus symposium participants from across animal, human and environmental health heard a wealth of information, including the following 11 points:

  1. The science behind the emergence, amplification, persistence and transfer of antibiotic resistance is highly complex and open to misinterpretation and misuse. If you think you understand antimicrobial resistance, it hasn’t been explained properly.
  2. The extremely complex relationship between animal health, human health and environmental health is driven by two premises: 1) Antimicrobial resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is present with or without the use of antimicrobials; and 2) Anytime an antibiotic enters the ecosystem, it contributes to the presence of antibiotic resistance.
  3. Antibiotic resistance is not just transferred from animals to humans; resistance is also transferred from humans to animals.
  4. Antibiotic resistance is not just a U.S. challenge; it’s an international issue that requires a strategic global One Health approach.
  5. Evaluating antimicrobial resistance involves balancing risks vs. needs while constantly recognizing the importance of maintaining an efficacious arsenal of human antibiotics.
  6. New tools that address food animal infectious diseases must be developed, whether they are in the field of prevention or new molecules for therapeutics.
  7. Research studies and findings are often viewed through different lenses. Individuals can look at the same study and obtain different interpretation of the results and what the study infers based on their own biases.
  8. Decisions should be based on science, and policy should be based on science.  The question, however, is who decides what constitutes evidence that is considered when making those decisions and policies.
  9. Significant efforts are being led by the public health community to reduce inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in human health and reduce hospital-acquired infections. Agriculture needs to be open to change as well.
  10. Change will happen. Open dialogue must continue, with animal agriculture at the table or change will be drastic and by statute and will not be a deliberative policy change.
  11. Solving antibiotic resistance requires collaboration and raises the question “How does human medicine, environmental health and animal medicine work together to address antibiotic use and resistance?”.

You can hear and view “Bridging the Gap between Animal Health and Human Health” symposium presentations—PowerPoints® with voice-over—online within the next two weeks at www.animalagriculture.org. A White Paper summarizing the symposium will be released and available online around Dec. 31.

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture provides a forum for building consensus and advancing proactive solutions for animal agriculture—the beef, dairy, swine, sheep, goats, equine, poultry and aquaculture industries—and provides continuing education and communication linkages for animal agriculture professionals. NIAA is dedicated to programs that work toward  the eradication of disease that pose risk to the health of animals, wildlife and humans; promote a safe and wholesome food supply for our nation and abroad; and promote best practices in environmental stewardship, animal health and well-being. NIAA members represent all facets of animal agriculture.