Practical Ways To Decrease Antibiotic Usage In The Cattle Industry! By: Roy Lewis DVM


The livestock industry is coping very well and making great strides with addressing the topic of decreasing antimicrobial usage which indirectly helps with antimicrobial resistance. From veterinarians setting the example and producers from the cow-calf sector to the feedlot implementing effective coping strategies, huge progress is being made. There are management changes which can be made to minimize disease incidence. The policymakers can also look at ways to increase research in antimicrobials or alternative treatment methods. Monitoring and surveillance of drug resistance such as the Task Force headed by the veterinary colleges to look at the evolution of antibiotic resistance has been formed. What can you do today as a cattle producer in whichever segment of the cattle industry you are involved in? This article will address changes you can make to hopefully decrease disease incidence and therefore the need for more antimicrobial usage in your calves.

You as producers need to develop strategies and herd health measures with your veterinarians and nutritionists to maximize resistance in the calves. Proper and complete vaccination protocols at the appropriate times coupled with proper nutrition and parasite control maximizes protection. Knowledge of the diseases prevalent in your area and using these vaccines at the recommended age on non-stressed cattle should also increase protection. True preconditioning programs, where calves are immunized before weaning and then weaned either using fenceline weaning or two-stage weaning have shown the best results at reducing respiratory morbidity. This takes extra effort and cost from the cow-calf producer but is the right thing to do. The preconditioning program took off in the 1980s but soon fizzled as producers did not realize benefits financially from doing it. With true preconditioning programs, treatment drugs are substantially reduced, and metaphylactic drugs can be avoided in most cases. This only works well if cattle are then directly shipped from farm to feedlot and not co-mingled with other producers’ calves.

Remember that vaccinating is not a 100% guarantee that calves are not going to get sick. Vaccines in general when boostered provide good protection to 90% or so of the calves. The exposure level, stress the calves are under, transportation distance, feed changes, handling stresses, and ability to find feed and water in a new pen all contribute to the morbidity level. The morbidity level coupled with the identification and early detection of disease determines how many antimicrobials are used.

Vaccines are improving in their spectrum of protection, length of protection, and quickness of protection all the time. Most research and effort is against protection of respiratory disease. This is where most antimicrobials are used. There is no doubt in the beef production chain that the first one to two months after arrival at the feedlot is where most antimicrobials are used. Preventing disease has been the focus of research. There has been more intranasal vaccines which give local immunity in the windpipe and nasopharynx. This occurs very rapidly. Some are developed for respiratory viruses and others for the respiratory bacteria. This quicker protection should also cut down on the incidence of respiratory disease. Whenever vaccinating make sure and store properly (keep refrigerated until use), rehydrate and use modified vaccines within one hour, give in the proper locations, and have epinephrine on hand in case of a rare allergic reaction. Proper application of vaccines means the herd will be better immunized and require less antibiotic treatment.

There are many alternative products to antibiotics and whether they be the NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory’s), probiotics, electrolyte solutions such as distress, essential oils or gases such as nitric oxide to treat respiratory disease each one needs to be considered by your veterinarian on its own merits. There is no doubt that NSAIDs are prescribed by most veterinarians these days as an adjunct therapy for most infections and inflammatory conditions such as respiratory disease. Early detection methods such as thermography, monitoring movement or activity, as well as a stethoscope coupled to a computer program (whisper technology) may go a long way towards detecting clinical cases of respiratory disease earlier. This may change the type and duration of antibiotics necessary.

A proper and timely diagnosis is essential for antimicrobials to work. Infections that are acted on too slowly require more antibiotics and if treating the wrong condition antibiotics could be used with poor results. The best example to me is dealing with lameness in the feedlot which has become the second most treated condition in many feedlots. A true footrot responds very favourably to many antibiotics whereas a sole abscess may need to be pared out or a sprain-strain may need time rather than antibiotics. You must assess each medical case with the question: “Do I really need antibiotics?” If in doubt, your veterinarian can provide guidance and protocols for specific disease conditions. Localized abscesses for instance if lanced, drained, and flushed may or may not need antibiotic treatment. Ask your veterinarian if a lack of response to antibiotics or recurrent cases may require a culture of the organism to reveal a resistance pattern. We often see resistance to families of antibiotics so defaulting to a secondary treatment with a very similar antibiotic may not be the right answer.  In the future, more direct shipping of loads of cattle from the ranch to the feedlot can minimize our treatments greatly. Satellite and video auctions are ways to get this done and subsequently cut overhead costs and deliver a healthier product to the feedlot operator while minimizing transportation and the stress of co-mingling. Calves will get on feed quicker, and one has an exact description of their vaccination and treatment history. That is valuable information to know. All sectors of the cattle industry need to work together to maintain a healthy meat protein source for consumption. Antibiotics will always need to be used to some extent, but some of these management changes can minimize their usage and save them for the cases that are life-threatening. If we work together to use prevention strategies such as vaccinating, getting a proper diagnosis, and using approved antimicrobials for cattle things will improve. Cattle will be healthier and grow better, and Canadian beef will continue to have a high level of quality and safety.


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