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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3 Comments

  1. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” For many farmers, especially those of the larger scale spectrum, using antbiotics as you outlined is their best option, both humanely and economically. Yes, it still concerns me. For myself I like to raise my own meat, knowing what is put into it and how it is treated, but for the vast majority that is not even an option let alone a wise choice. I do see overuse and the range of issues that arise from it. I don’t have the answers or an alternative option. Education of the farmer and the consumer takes time and a dedicated vision.

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