Raising responsible beef is a priority for farmers and ranchers, which includes a strong focus on environmental, social and economic efforts at feedyards and a commitment to continuous improvement. Watch this video to learn more.
Jake Geis, DVM – Veterinarian, Tyndall Veterinary Clinic
This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff.
Farmers and ranchers are always responding to the ever-changing issues facing agriculture. One of our top priorities is addressing concerns about antibiotic resistance in both human and animal health. In response, the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) is being updated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working with farmers, ranchers, feed manufacturers, and veterinarians.
What is the VFD and Why Is It Important?
Beginning January 1st, 2017, federal guidelines will require a written or electronic prescription-like script, a VFD, to authorize the use of antibiotics in cattle feed that are important to human medicine. As a component of this change, antibiotics used in human medicine will no longer be allowed for use for growth promotion in cattle feed.
How Do Veterinarians, Farmers and Ranchers Work Together?
For a cattle owner, obtaining a VFD will take veterinary involvement. If the farmer or rancher’s primary veterinarian diagnoses cattle that are in a disease outbreak, the veterinarian can write a VFD for the treatment, prevention or control of disease that allows the farmer or rancher to obtain feed-grade antibiotics. The VFD is taken to a licensed cattle feed business, like a prescription is taken to a pharmacy, where the order is filled.
For example, a farmer or rancher might have a group of calves that have come down with pneumonia. That farmer would contact me, a veterinarian, and we would assess the situation. Rather than give each calf an injectable antibiotic, which would add stress to calves that are already sick, I elect to treat them with an oral antibiotic that is mixed in with their feed. I would write the VFD and then send a copy to the licensed feed distributor.
As a Veterinarian, What Do You Want Concerned Consumers to Know?
As a veterinarian, I feel the VFD is important for two reasons. First, it allows for the continued therapeutic use of antibiotics in the feed. This is of major importance for animal welfare, as it allows for efficient treatment of diseases in a manner that is effective and provides the lowest stress for the animal.
Second, it fosters a closer relationship between the cattle owner and the veterinarian. Having a veterinarian’s input enhances animal health decisions in providing the best treatment for disease challenges. Most importantly, veterinarians can help farmers and ranchers with preventative medicine programs, which guard against disease outbreaks.
I also want consumers to know in spite of the best preventative programs, occasionally cattle get sick. I’ve seen the frustration in farmers’ faces when a group of calves was struggling with disease despite their best efforts to prevent it. In some of those cases, feed-grade antibiotics made the difference in creating better animal welfare for the calves.
Where Can Consumers Learn More?
The VFD is only one of several strategies cattle farmers and ranchers are using. If you’d like to learn more, there are several resources that detail these other strategies. These include FactsAboutBeef.com, the North American Meat Institute, and blogs from farmers and ranchers, such as Kids Cows and Grass, Faith Family and Beef and my own blog, The Cow Docs.
Lastly, it is critical to remember that preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics is a cause for all of us. Even making sure to finish the full course of antibiotics prescribed to you or to your animals is essential to the fight against antibiotic resistance. With a dedicated effort, together we can successfully confront this challenge.
The entire beef community works every day to produce high-quality beef for Americans. So, where does it all begin? The beef lifecycle begins on a cow-calf operation; where farmers and ranchers maintain a herd of mama cows for breeding.
First, cows (mature female cattle) and bulls (intact adult male cattle) are bred to produce calves. During the 9-month gestation period, farmers and ranchers play close attention to mama cows to make sure there are no problems with the pregnancy.
If any issues arise, a farmer, rancher or veterinarian can step in to ensure the health and safety of the mama and baby.
Farmers and ranchers are there every step of the way
Cows receive assistance from farmers and ranchers, and often times a veterinarian, during the birthing process, which is also known as calving. When a calf is born, it weighs between 60-100 pounds depending on its parent’s genetics and how well the mama cow’s body performed nutritionally during gestation. A newborn calf will spend the first few months of life drinking its mother’s milk and grazing on vast grass pastures. Today, cattle are born and raised in almost every state around the country on farms and ranches such as Debbie Lyons-Blythe’s ranch in Kansas or in South Dakota at Jake and Carolyn Geis’ ranch.
Animal safety is a priority
It is important for farmers and ranchers to be able to identify their cattle for the safety and security of their herd. Some cattle farmers and ranchers may use ear tags, which identify the animal with a number tagged in their ear (sort of like an earring). Before beginning the weaning process, other calves may receive a custom brand either by hot iron or freeze branding, so they are easily identifiable from a distance. The branding process does not cause long-term harm or pain to cattle, and it prevents them from getting lost or stolen. Additionally, some ranchers in western states are required by law to brand their cattle.
Before four months of age, the testicles are often removed from male calves being raised for beef through a process called castration. Castration occurs because bulls display more aggressive behavior and can cause harm to other animals or farmers and ranchers, so removing the testicles improves overall safety for the animal and for the animal caretakers. Removal is quick, low-stress and the calf begins the healing process immediately.
Cattle with horns can cause injury to other cattle they encounter throughout their lifetime. For this reason, horns are removed from calves in a process called dehorning. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that cattle be dehorned at the earliest age possible.
For these procedures and more, education and tools are provided to cattle farmers and ranchers to ensure proper cattle care. Introduced in 1987, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program was developed to ensure proper cattle care through every stage of the beef lifecycle.
The lifecycle continues
At 6-10 months of age, and approximately 500 pounds, calves are ready to begin weaning. Weaning is the process by which calves are moved away from their mothers in order to graze on grass pastures, where they eat grass and forages that are indigestible to humans. The weaning process allows calves to become independent of their mother’s milk so they may continue to grow and thrive on the pasture.
After weaning is complete, the beef lifecycle continues. Many calves are purchased at livestock auction markets by farmers and ranchers called stockers and backgrounders. However, some calves (about one in three female calves) are kept on the cow-calf operation as breeding animals or “mama cows to-be,” and the lifecycle begins again.
In every stage of the beef lifecycle , farmers and ranchers are dedicated to the health and safety of their animals at the cow-calf operation. Cow-calf operations are just the beginning of how the beef community comes together to bring beef from farm to fork.
There has been a great deal of discussion lately about how antibiotics are used in raising livestock. The reality is that farmers and ranchers take antibiotic use in livestock very seriously and continuously evaluate the way they use antibiotics based on the best possible science.
In fact, for nearly 30 years, there have been quality assurance programs in place to help make sure farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the way they raise beef, including the way they use antibiotics, in order to protect human health, as well as animal health. This is often referred to as “antibiotic stewardship.”
Quality assurance throughout the beef community
A foundation for antibiotic stewardship in the beef community is the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. Started in the 1980’s, BQA is a nationally-coordinated, voluntary, program that provides guidelines for raising beef. The BQA program is guided by an Advisory Board composed of veterinarians, animal scientists, meat scientists, state BQA coordinators, cattlemen and dairymen from across the United States.
Antibiotic stewardship and BQA go hand in hand
A significant part of the BQA program involves antibiotic stewardship training about the appropriate use and administration of pharmaceutical products including following withdrawal times, the prevention of environmental contamination, the need for good record keeping, and the importance of a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. In fact, one of the guidelines put forth in the BQA program, A Beef Producer’s Guide for the Judicious Use of Antimicrobials in Cattle highlights 14 use guidelines for antibiotics, including:
- Avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine
- Use a narrow spectrum of antimicrobials whenever possible
- Treat the fewest number of animals possible
- Antibiotics used should be limited to treat, prevent or control disease
Antibiotics are just one tool
The BQA program also teaches that antibiotics are just one tool to ensure healthy animals and there are many others, including good management practices, vaccines, cattlenutrition programs, veterinary care, proper housing and low-stress handling that are critical components to ensuring healthy animals as well. If cattle become ill, it is critical to identify the right illness for proper treatment and producers may consult a veterinarian for assistance in diagnosis of the illness. If an antibiotic is needed to treat the illness, the right antibiotic is administered for the right amount of time by following the FDA-approved label instructions, Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines and veterinary guidance.
Today, Beef Quality Assurance influences management practices of more than 80-90 percent of U.S. cattle and farmers and ranchers work hard every day to continue to increase the number of producers who are BQA certified. The beef community continues to invest in research to better understand how to effectively and appropriately use antibiotics to best protect animal and public health. For example, the beef community has organized a research advisory group composed of a wide range of university researchers within the agricultural community to direct the planning for future antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance research activities.
Myth: Big beef uses antibiotics without regard for animal welfare or human health.
Facts: Antibiotics are just one tool beef farmers and ranchers use to keep cattle healthy by treating and preventing the spread of illness. Cattle can pick up illnesses, just like humans, whether they’re out on pasture or in a feedlot with other animals. Cattlemen work closely with veterinarians to develop a comprehensive health program, which may include nutritious diet, proper housing, hygiene, vaccinations and antibiotics.
How are they used?
- When an animal gets sick, farmers, ranchers and veterinarians carefully evaluate when to administer antibiotics and use specific dosages and treatment protocols to treat the animal.
- Cattle farmers and ranchers believe not treating cattle that become sick is inhumane as part of their ongoing commitment to animal health and welfare. When administering antibiotics, they follow precise label directions, meaning they adhere to usage guidelines to protect both animals and humans that have been rigorously tested and approved by the United States Food & Drug Administration. Just like in human medicine, there are many protocols developed by veterinarians and scientists that they have to follow diligently.
- Antibiotics are used in animal medicine to prevent disease, which is important to animal and human safety.
- Antibiotic use to prevent disease differs from growth promotion purposes in three ways: dose, duration and level of veterinary oversight.
- Some farmers and ranchers choose to use ionophores – a special class of antibiotics not used in human medicine – to promote lean muscle growth in animals, which results in leaner beef choices.
Who ensures antibiotics are not overused?
- There is no reason to overuse antibiotics, but reasons why they might be used at specific times and in targeted ways. For one, it’s the law not to overuse them, but antibiotics also are expensive for the small businessmen and women who raise cattle for beef.
How are antibiotics given to cattle?
- Depending on the circumstance, antibiotics may be given to cattle as individual injections or added to feed or water to treat a larger group who has been exposed to the same illness.
Are antibiotics safe?
- All antibiotics must go through rigorous government scrutiny before being approved for use in livestock.
- Unlike human medicine, animal medicine goes through three layers of approval, is the medicine safe for the animal, the environment and the humans who will consume the meat. All three areas must be evaluated before approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
- Even after they’re approved, antibiotics are continuously monitored and must be re-evaluated annually. They only stay on the market if they continue to be proven safe.
What’s being done to improve antibiotic use?
- Cattlemen and the entire livestock community are working together to continuously improve the way antibiotics are used in animals, because they care about how their practices impact antibiotic safety and efficacy.
- The beef community is also working to avoid using antibiotics that are important to both human and animal medicine, as identified by the World Health Organization. For example, Food & Drug Administration Guidance 209 and 213 will eliminate growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics and extend veterinary oversight.
For consumers who want beef raised without antibiotics, the beef community has listened and provides choices to meet those needs.
Learn more about judicious use of antibiotics and what farmers and ranchers do to keep animals and humans safe.
Myth: Farmers and ranchers leave their cattle to fend for themselves in frigid winter conditions, such as the polar vortex.
The Facts: Winter is tough on all of us – people, cattle, dogs, cats – every living thing is struggling to stay warm in the sub-zero temperatures that the polar vortex has caused across the nation. And while it may be easy to bring in your pets at night to make sure they don’t freeze, farmers and ranchers can’t bring the whole herd into their living room!
However, there are several steps farmers and ranchers take to ensure the best care possible for their livestock. For example, during extreme cold, such as the current polar vortex, farmers will increase the amount of feed that cattle receive in order to boost their metabolism and help produce body heat. Additionally, many farmers will bring in as many cattle as possible to their barns and provide lots of dry bedding. For those cattle that aren’t in the barn, wind breaks are set up in pastures so that cattle can escape from the frosty gusts. Wind breaks can be fences, bales of hay or anything that slows down the speed of the wind.
Fresh water availability is critical to livestock, so some ranchers install water tank heaters to keep fresh water available, and not frozen, at all times. If tanks aren’t equipped with heaters, ranchers will break through the ice in water tanks multiple times per day. These actions are especially important during winter storms, or conditions like the polar vortex, when decreased water intake paired with increased feed intake can lead to health problems for cattle. Although farmers and ranchers do their best to keep cattle warm and comfortable, the reality is that when the temperature drops below 0°F, as was seen during the polar vortex, it’s difficult to guarantee warmth. However, cattle are naturally equipped with tools to help keep them warm. For example, when winter starts to set in cattle develop thicker hair coats to insulate their bodies against snow and wind. Furthermore, cattle will huddle together to conserve heat and insulate the herd. These natural instincts prevent the animal’s internal body temperature from dropping to hypothermic levels. Unfortunately, when unseasonably cold weather strikes early, as was the case in 2013 with winter storm Atlas, cattle may not have developed their winter coat and it can be difficult for farmers and ranchers to get to their cattle in remote pastures to provide extra feed. That early storm, combined with rain followed by snow and high winds, created an extreme situation that could not be avoided even by the most seasoned cowboy. The efforts of farmers and ranchers, combined with the natural instincts of cattle, keep cattle protected during cold spells such as the polar vortex. You can be confident that America’s farmers and ranchers are doing their very best to ensure the highest possible care for their cattle and livestock.
People have always been interested in what cattle eat. Recent news stories have suggested that farmers and ranchers are increasingly looking to sources like candy, cereal or fruit peels to feed their cattle during the ongoing drought.
The fact is that just like humans, cattle require the right mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins to help them thrive and grow. That healthy, balanced diet includes simple carbohydrates that can be provided by a variety of sources, [Read more…]
Myth: Undercover videos show abuse and are representative of the entire beef industry.
Fact: These videos represent abuses that are extremely disgraceful to a beef community that is fully committed to raising animals humanely and does not tolerate mistreatment of cattle.
Despite undercover videos showing footage of disturbing animal abuse, it is not a normal or acceptable occurrence. The beef industry does not condone any mishandling of livestock on the farm or ranch or in the packing facility. The actions depicted in these videos are disgraceful and not representative of the entire beef community. The vast majority of cattlemen adhere to the absolute best animal care and handling guidelines established by veterinarians and other experts. [Read more…]
Many reports and stories claim that cattle feedlots, so-called factory farms, force feed the cattle a diet made almost entirely of corn. Many of these reports also claim that corn fed beef is unnatural, and that when it comes to grain-fed versus grass-fed beef, grass-fed is always better.
The Facts: Cattle feedlots and feedyards are not feeding cattle diets made up entirely of corn.
The truth about factory farming, or cattle feedlots, is that feedyards are made up of caring, professional people including cowboys, veterinarians and animal nutritionists who make sure cattle receive the best care possible on a daily basis, and that includes ensuring they receive a proper, nutritious and balanced diet. Here’s what you should know about what cattle eat in a feedlot: [Read more…]