A Vet’s Perspective on Antibiotics and the Veterinary Feed Directive

jakegeis_fabpost1Jake 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 alsojakegeis_fabpost2 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.

Animal Welfare is a Top Priority for America’s Beef Producers

Animal welfare is a contentious and passionate issue, but most importantly, a number one priority for the dedicated farmers and ranchers of the United States. The truth is that farmers and ranchers are just like you – they care about providing the highest standards of animal welfare for their livestock and are committed to preventing animal abuse.

Farmers and ranchers are quick to condemn any type of animal abuse. Adam Navinskey, a beef and crop farmer from Kansas, explained, “When I see animal abuse on TV or the Internet, it makes me wonder what is wrong with these people? I don’t understand how someone can consciously abuse an animal and I don’t think any punishment would be severe enough to make up for what they did.”

For all farmers and ranchers, like Adam, there are a host of research-based standards that farmers and ranchers adhere to each day ensure their animals are well cared for. Healthy animals are the key to safe beef.

Many farmers and ranchers complete animal welfare programs which provide them with the tools and education to ensure proper cattle care. For example, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program offers up-to-date, scientifically-proven best management practices. In 2003, the BQA program developed The Cattle Industry’s Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle, making it very clear that “persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.” Feeding and nutrition, health care, handling and transportation are just a few of the areas addressed by the code.

An example of a serpentine ramp to move cattle calmlly, developed by Temple Grandin

An example of a serpentine ramp or “S ramp” developed by Dr. Temple Grandin

In the 1980’s Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, invented a now widely used animal handling facility design known as the Serpentine ramp, or “S ramp.” In an effort to improve the handling of animals, this curved, s-shaped ramp allowed reduced stress to livestock by taking advantage of natural cattle behaviors. The S-ramp is just one example of a method that farmers and ranchers use to abide by care and handling codes, to ensure a high standard of animal welfare.

Programs like BQA provide farmers and ranchers with best practices on transporting cattle by avoiding undue stress caused by overcrowding, excess time in transit or improper handling during loading and unloading. While transporting cattle, farmers and ranchers are careful to abide by the code and sometimes they will even hire a livestock specialist to train other employees how to properly handle cattle with quality assured methods.

As animal caretakers, farmers and ranchers are highly concerned about their livestock. Their animals are their livelihood, and they are committed to providing a comfortable, safe environment throughout the beef lifecycle.

The Beef Lifecycle Begins on the Cow-Calf Operation

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.

This calf is being branded for identification and herd management. Photo courtesy Jennie Hodgen

This calf is being branded for identification and herd management. Photo courtesy Jennie Hodgen

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.

How are farmers and ranchers taking care of their cattle during winter storms and cold weather?

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!

Photo credit: Phil Roeder - Flickr

Flickr:  Phil Roeder / Creative Commons

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.

water tank heater

Water tank heaters are one way farmers and ranchers keep their animals safe during cold weather like the polar vortex.

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. SummerVsWinterCoat 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.

Do livestock feed additives, like beta-agonists, cause animal welfare problems?

Myth: The beef community uses animal feed additives for cattle, such as beta-agonists, without regard to animal welfare.

The Facts:  We understand how people may have questions about animal welfare, particularly with recent media coverage about the use of Zilmax, an animal feed ingredient. Like consumers, the beef community wants to do everything possible to assure animal welfare and determine the causes of recent reports of cattle lameness and other animal welfare questions. Lameness in cattle may occur for a variety of reasons, so it is important to conduct research to determine if there is any connection to use of beta-agonists.

The entire beef community—from the manufacturers of beta-agonists to the farmers and ranchers to the feedlots to the meatpacking plants—has a shared responsibility and commitment to animal welfare. Throughout the entire beef lifecycle, we are working together to address this issue by taking additional actions such as convening animal health experts in order to continue to ensure the highest level of care and humane handling for cattle raised in the United States.

  • What are beta-agonists? Beta-agonists, such as Zilmax and Optaflexx, are feed additives that, when added to feed in small amounts at a specific time in their lives, help cattle make the most of the food they eat resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. All animal health products, including beta-agonists, are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to use in animals to ensure there are no adverse impacts on animal health. Products in this class generate different responses due to differences in their chemical structure, receptor site activity and the tissues they act on.

What happens across the beef lifecycle to ensure optimum care?

  • Animal health companies: The animal health companies that make products, such as beta-agonists, have a strong commitment to animal welfare. These companies conduct numerous animal welfare studies and educational initiatives prior to any product being approved by the FDA. Products are continually monitored after they are introduced into the marketplace through additional studies, monitoring use in real world situations and more to help ensure the products are working safely and effectively. In response to recent questions, the manufacturer of Zilmax recently announced that they will be conducting additional animal welfare studies as well as convening an animal health advisory board to address some of the questions being raised. They have also recently made the decision to temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada, in order to do additional research and audits.
  • Cow-calf farmers and ranchers: Created by farmers and ranchers in 1987 and veterinarian endorsed, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program includes research, training and certification that help farmers and ranchers provide the best care to their cattle. From feeding and nutrition, to transportation and cattle handling, BQA incorporates a variety of best practices to ensure proper cattle care.
  • Feedlots: The handling and care of more than 90 percent of cattle in feedlots today are influenced by the BQA program.
    • In feedlots across the country, professional cowboys called “pen riders” ride horseback among their cattle daily to observe the health of every animal and to make sure they are getting the care they need. If there is a concern, a veterinarian or nutritionist is consulted.
    • Feedlot managers also work closely with their veterinarians to ensure responsible use of products, such as antibiotics or beta-agonists. The decision to use any product, including feed additives like beta-agonists, is an individual one that every farmer/rancher/feedlot manager makes in consultation with their veterinarian and animal nutritionist.
  • Meatpacking plants: The federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 dictates strict animal handling and slaughter standards for packing plants at all times. When cattle arrive at the packing plant, they are evaluated for physical conditions that might be a concern and make them unfit for human consumption (animals that might have extreme lethargy, might not be able to walk normally, etc.).  If the inspector observes anything of concern, the animal is held separately until it can be examined to determine if it can be processed for food, or if it should be humanely euthanized and not allowed to not enter the food supply.
    • Most packing plants do their own animal welfare audits, an audit program developed by Dr. Temple Grandin.  Many have remote cameras installed on-site.  Many also are audited at least annual, and commonly more often, by third-party audit firms. Regular auditing helps plants identify issues early and maintain a high standard of welfare.

Ultimately, animal welfare is a top priority for everyone within the beef community, and the entire supply chain is committed to meeting consumer expectations for high-quality beef with animal care at its core.

Hear from feedlot owner, Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Nebraska, about the importance of animal welfare and using beta-agonists on her operation.

Also, hear from Richard Raymond, M.D., former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture about beta-agonists, food safety and beef.

Cattle Producers Want You to See Inside the Barn

Myth: Farmers and ranchers don’t want consumers to see what happens on farms, feedlots or a slaughter house.

The Facts:  This couldn’t be further from the truth—farmers and ranchers are committed to transparency. From farm to fork, there are a wide variety of resources to learn more about how beef is raised and the people who raise it.

Farmers and ranchers consistently open their barn doors to allow interested consumers the opportunity to see first-hand how beef is raised.  From school groups to community tours, the public is consistently invited into farms and ranches throughout the country. Many of these consumers even document and share their experiences with others.

On top of offering up tours and experiences, many farmers and ranchers also take the time to blog or make YouTube videos to help those people who aren’t able to make it out to a farm or ranch understand how beef is raised.  Now you are able to get a firsthand account of what happens on the farm or ranch for the comfort of your own home. Check out the following accounts from farmers and ranchers, as well as consumers, which provide a firsthand look at how beef is raised.  

Check out a recent blog post from Katie Pratt, corn and soybean farmer from Illinois, as she explores the “terms of transparency” and opens up the opportunity for consumers to ask questions of farmers and ranchers.

You can be confident in the care that beef producers provide to their animals, however, if you still have questions please explore the links and videos above to learn more about beef and meat production in the United States or seek out a nearby farmer and request a tour. You’ll find the barn doors are always open!

See below for examples of cattlemen and women opening up their farms and ranches for tours.

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