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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Antibiotics in Beef? Only when necessary!

Late last week the FDA announced some new voluntary guidelines for the use of antibiotics in livestock.  This was interesting to me and I wanted to share some of my views and some research I have looked at.   One of my longtime friends texted me a few questions about this announcement to prod me along to do a blog about it.  (Thanks Tara)  This is a bit long, but I feel I really need to explain to everyone why we do what we do on this very prominent issue.  As always, feel free to ask me questions or let me know if you need clarification on something.  This is one of those technical subjects.

First of all, if you don’t understand why I am so interested in the push against livestock antibiotic usage take a couple of minutes to listen to my radio interview with Trent Loos in February.  It will take 12 minutes to be exact.

So, do we use antibiotics to treat our cattle?  You bet we do.  As I said in my last blog, I view myself as a second mother to all the calves we have in our pastures.   I use antibiotics when my two boys get sick so why wouldn’t we use them to keep our other babies healthy as well.  It is our job to use resources to keep them healthy so you can have a healthy, abundant and affordable food supply.  The United Soybean Board funded a study of what would happen if antibiotics were banned in the U.S.  To produce at the same level we would need 23 million more cows, 12 million more pigs, and 452 million more chickens.  If the U.S. can’t produce enough meat to fill the needs, the meat will come from other countries that may or may not have the same standards as our USDA and FDA.  I would prefer that I knew who was overseeing my children’s food.

We typically use antibiotics that are either injected or put into their feed.  Injectable antibiotics are used mainly when we are treating a few individual animals.  For example, we will treat a calf with pneumonia or diarrhea caused by E. coli.  Knowing which cattle to treat can be tricky and some might say is done a lot by instinct.  Cattle aren’t like people, they can’t tell us what hurts, where they don’t feel good, etc.  In fact, I heard it once said that a veterinarian is the best doctor in the world, because his patients can’t tell him what is wrong.  We look for calves with the following visual symptoms to know which calves may need antibiotic treatment:  droopy head and/or ears, not eating or drinking, off by themselves, breathing rapidly, coughing, diarrhea, gaunt, etc.  If feasible, we will get these calves in and take their temperature before 10:00 am.  Daytime heating can easily elevate a calf’s temperature 1-2 degrees or more.  The normal temperature for a calf is 101.9 degrees Fahrenheit, rectally.  And yes that is the only way that I know of to take a calf’s temperature.  Sure wish we could use one of those temporal thermometers on cattle.    

We do use antibiotics in our mineral supplements during specific times of the year.  One of those times we just finished up, calving.  Most of you probably have never had the pleasure of watching a cow have a calf.  Where do I begin?  Calves come front feet and head first.  I really don’t get to watch many older cows calve, but I have watched a lot of heifers during labor.  Most of them will lie down and push, get up turn around and look at the ground where the calf should be, and turn back around and lay back down if there is no calf there.  What happens, many times, is that she will push the legs and often head out to the ground, but when she stands up gravity and the weight of the main body of the calf pulls it back in, which means that calf is pulling bacteria and anything else it might have touched back into the cow’s reproductive tract.  Antibiotics fed at this time can greatly improve the subsequent conception rate of the cow.

We also need to look at the environment that we are putting the calf into when they come into this world.  It is not a sterile hospital room, it is the great outdoors with anything and everything blowing around.  The first milk a cow gives is great at jump starting a calf’s immune system, but sometimes he needs a little help and a low dose antibiotic found in mama’s milk can often do just the trick.  We had a bottle calf that his mother wouldn’t take and we spent a month fighting 2 different infections using several different injectible antibiotics to get him where he feels good and is finally growing.  The main infection started in his navel and traveled to his joints.

We also use antibiotics in the mineral supplement that we give the cattle during the peak and end of the active fly season.  Flies and ticks are great vectors of many blood diseases.  While we do use several methods of fly control, just like with people a single tick or fly bite can cause an infection.  The main disease we battle in our mature cow herd during this time is called Anaplasmosis or Anaplaz for short.  Anaplaz is carried in the blood and attacks the red blood cells making the cows severely anemic.  In fact, their eyes, lips and vulva will be very, very pale.  The disease also starves the brain for oxygen and can make the gentlest cow into a cow that will charge you.  The only good thing is that these cows are weak and they usually stumble before they hit you.  Anaplaz works very quickly once symptoms are evident and injectable treatment is dangerous to the rancher.  In the last couple of years, I have also learned that there are subclinical cases of Anaplaz, that is the cow never shows symptoms, but the anemia does set in to an extent and can actually starve her fetus for oxygen.  The cow will then have a miscarriage.  These cases of Anaplaz are probably more costly to the producer than the full blown ones as no one is really sure how many of these cases are out there.  What we do know, after several rounds of blood lab work, is that a high percentage of our cows are carriers for the disease. 

We do what we can during the cattle vaccination process to limit blood transfer from one cow to another.  We use disinfectant and a sponge to clean needles between cows, when possible, but there are times we cannot use them.  We often use Modified Live Virus vaccines, we cannot use disinfectant with these as it will kill the vaccine.  When we use these MLV vaccines, we use a new needle for every cow.  It is a bit more costly, but if it keeps one more cow healthy it is worth the investment.

OK, so there are some of the reasons that we use antibiotics in our cow herd.  Let me also tell you that we keep track of when antibiotics are used so we do not sell any cattle that may still have drug residue in their bodies.  It is illegal to sell a bovine that has not had enough time to go through a length of withdrawal from antibiotics.  Each antibiotic has its own length of time and is clearly stated on the label. 

If you would like to know more about antibiotic usage, on a whole industry wide view, Kansas State University has released a study talking about them and you can find that link here:  
 Keep in mind I did not graduate from KSU, so it is a big deal if I link to them.  LOL  If you have seen some of the ads, like the one I talked to Trent Loos about, I encourage you to look at this link. 

On a final note, many times on our operation the cattle that have been treated with the most antibiotics end up in our freezer for my kids to eat that is how sure I am that we use antibiotics correctly.  They are perfectly healthy animals, but usually an infection in their foot did permanent damage and they will never walk without a limp.  We choose to feed our family these calves.  I assure you as a mother, I would never feed something to my children that I did not feel was safe for them or would cause them harm in the future.

I know this was a lot of information, and will lead to more questions.  The take home message I hope you all got was the following:  There are groups out there that would love to see the way we produce your food change.  They don't seem to understand that if the food is not produced in the U.S., it will come from other countries that don't have the same standards of safety that we do and the food will be much more expensive.

A Kansas Farm Mom