Antibiotics: the Scarlet A of livestock production


October 31st, 2011

By Jessica Naudziunas

Kansas City, MO – More and more consumers are demanding beef and dairy products that are free of antibiotics. But, for many cattle ranchers, a preventative approach is an essential part of business. Harvest Public Media’s Jessica Naudziunas takes a look at both sides of the story.

When he’s not busy with birthing, feeding and moving cattle, Chuck Massengill is busy keeping his animals healthy.

And that sometimes means administering drugs.

Cattle rancher and retired veterinarian Chuck Massengill practices free-range, grass-fed cow management, but relies on more traditional back-ups like antibiotics to keep his cows disease free. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media)

“We vaccinate for production concerns and for life and death concerns,” said the retired veterinarian, who raises 50 beef cows on rolling fields of green grass in California, Mo.

Vaccinations, for example, can help prevent things like bovine trichomoniasis, a venereal disease that can shut down a herd’s productivity. It’s a growing concern in cattle country and Missouri now requires ranchers to test for the disease before a bull is rented or sold for breeding.

The list of potential ailments – everything from respiratory distress to pink eye – is long, especially for cows that spend most of their time outside. And if the preventative approach falls through and an animal gets sick, conventional livestock producers like Massengill sometimes turn to more drugs – usually antibiotics.

“If a calf gets diarrhea, I’ll get it antibiotics specifically to treat that diarrhea,” Massengill said. “This year we’ve had not a single case. Last year I treated maybe two or three.”

But limited or not, antibiotic use is a contentious issue among farming groups and consumers.

The European Union has banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion – a type of treatment that requires constant administering of antibiotics. And legislation, in the works since 2009, also would eliminate growth-promoting antibiotics in the U.S. Although the bill wouldn’t address antibiotics used to treat illness, livestock groups are on the alert because some food activists want the ban extended to the use of all antibiotics.

Many farmers see the concerns as a disconnect between fear and reality.

Massengill said he hopes consumers know there’s a difference between a farmer like him who makes a choice to treat a single animal with antibiotics versus administering antibiotics on a regular basis to an entire herd.

Preventing disease

In a practical sense, antibiotic use on midsize farms is limited by cost. To treat one average size cow with penicillin may cost well over $500 by the end of the antibiotic regimen.

But money isn’t the deciding factor, Massengill said. An illness like pink eye can render a cow’s day painful and unsafe, and it is most effectively treated with antibiotics. Massengill said his very occasional antibiotic use is for animal welfare. Being sick, even for a cow, is no fun.

Treating animals with drugs can also mess with a farmer’s schedule. If cows are treated too close to slaughter time, all of the hard work that went into raising the animals may go to waste. Their meat won’t be allowed to enter the food chain if they’ve just finished up a flight of drugs. That’s why Massengill said he trusts the food supply – thanks to random inspections and strict rules, antibiotic residue is probably a rarity.

“I certainly can’t imagine antibiotics coming through en masse in beef products,” Massengill said.

But some people can, and avoid conventionally raised meat altogether.

There also has been particular concern among activists about antibiotics showing up in milk and other dairy products.

Chris Heins is the dairy herd manager for Heins Family Dairy in Higginsville, Mo. The dairy produces 6,000 gallons of milk a day, but Heins said the vet bill is low.

“So much of that has to do with how you design the barns, treating the animals well,” Heins said.

Heins practices preventative measures to keep his cows healthy and said he can do that by cutting down on the stress the animals experience. He makes sure the cows have proper ventilation, feed with the right nutritional balance, access to plenty of clean water and space to move around.

“I only try to use antibiotics when it is necessary for the health of the animal,” Heins said. “You know, our cows don’t have health insurance and antibiotics aren’t cheap.”

Even if he uses antibiotics, it’s not like the cows continue to be milked for human consumption, Heins said.

“(A sick cow’s) milk will not enter the rest of the milk,” Heins said. “It will not get shipped to the store or anything like that. As soon as any cow gets antibiotics, she will get moved to a separate pen.”

Danger in overuse

So what’s the worry? Well, some say there’s a danger in overuse of antibiotics. Regular doctors don’t prescribe antibiotics to sick people unless it’s really needed – too many antibiotics thrown at bacterial infections could create a super-resistant pathogen.

That’s true for cows, too. If a cow is pumped up with antibodies even when it isn’t sick, its beef might not be safe to eat.

But banning antibiotics and giving farmers fewer options to manage animal health on the farm would only cause bigger problems, according to many in the animal health industry.

“We’re finding more and more the importance of the healthy animal for food safety,” said Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University.

Hurd said an animal that looks perfectly healthy at slaughter and passes inspections could have undetected lesions or signs of infection if it wasn’t cared for properly. That would make its meat unsafe to eat because it would be more likely to be contaminated with salmonella or with campylobacter.

“The data are showing us that there’s an increased contamination rate,” Hurd said “The healthy animal on the farm is directly related to public health.”

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