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Where’s the Antibiotic Use in Beef Cattle Production?

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November 2016

Antibiotic usage in food animal production is at the forefront of the minds of both consumers and producers. It is certainly a challenge these days to find a meat case or restaurant that is not marketing their product as free of hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, and corn. Whether this is right, wrong, good, or bad is beyond the scope for this article. Instead, let’s examine where we are in present day beef production and what the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations really mean for the industry.

At a recent county cattlemen’s meeting I spoke on the VFD and was asked for actual numbers on what the beef industry consumed when it came to antimicrobials. I thought delving into this topic would be valuable for the readership at large. More pointedly, I was asked to compare the beef industry to other food animal industries in terms of antibiotic use. Let me be clear: I do not intend to disparage one industry to the benefit of another. Opining as to whether one species group is potentially more responsible for antibiotic usage concerns than another is a waste of time and ultimately negatively affects us all in the food animal industry. At the end of the day, we are all in the same business and that is doing our part to feed the world. Less idealistically, we do also have to meet the demands of our consumer if we are to remain in business, and right now, our consumers want us to use less antibiotics.

For the sake of clarity, let me review a few key pieces of information. The VFD will only affect access to and delivery of medically important antimicrobials administered to animals in feed, mineral, or water. Injectable antibiotics currently available over the counter will not be affected by this regulation and their use will be ignored in this article. “Medically important antibiotics” are products that are used to treat infections in human medicine, or share similar chemical characteristics to compounds that are used in humans. Some examples would be chlortetracycline or CTC and tylosin (Tylan®). Ionophores and coccidiostats (Rumensin®, Cattlyst®, Corid®, etc.) are not used in human medicine, and will still be available over-the-counter at feed stores, unless combined with a medically important antibiotic. Use of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes has been phased out in response to 2012 FDA recommendations to the industry.

Feed and water antibiotics are used in food animal production to treat active infections or illnesses in sick animals, control spread of bacteria within herds that contain sick animals, prevent emergence of illnesses within herds that are at risk of breaking, and historically to promote efficiency of weight gain and feed conversion. Antibiotic technology revolutionized the food animal industry and has allowed for the expansion and success of many industry entities. Certainly keeping animals healthy and making them more efficient promotes environmental stewardship, economic efficiency, and improves the quality of production life. The downsides to herd-level antibiotic use, however, are real and present. These include increased animal density on less acreage, potential for development of antimicrobial resistance in important human and animal pathogens, relaxation or loss of alternative husbandry and biosecurity practices, and decreased consumer confidence in retail product. Herds currently utilizing antibiotics delivered in feed and water should review their management practices and critically evaluate why they are using these products. From there, owners need to decide how best to move forward after 1 January 2017. Starting a conversation with a licensed livestock veterinarian is the best way to understand if current production methods are sound, if there are viable alternatives to use of antibiotics, and how to ensure seamless transition to VFD implementation if continued use is deemed appropriate and necessary.

Unlike the vertically integrated hog and broiler industries, the beef supply chain is much more diffuse in nature and remains extremely diverse in operation style. Due to this industry heterogeneity and highly divided nature of market share, reporting of production practices is inconsistent, at times tightly-held, and undoubtedly incomplete. Thus, it is much harder to broadly characterize the entire beef industry and accurately describe individual aspects of management culture. In terms of antibiotic use, industry must rely on receipts for product sold as a measure for quantification. This method is fraught with inaccuracy. Think about it this way – you are asked how many hours you worked in the last year on the beef operation, and you only provide 12 months’ worth of herd sales receipts as documentation and verification of your work time. Is this an accurate representation of how much time was spent managing your cattle? I’d say it’s not. According to an FDA report released in 2013, roughly 20.3 million pounds of feed-grade medically-important antibiotics were sold in the US for use in food animals. Unfortunately, this report did not break out drugs sold by species industry, number of animals produced in same time period, nor have any metric for whether antibiotic sold equated to antibiotic delivered to animals. Thus, the current reporting structure potentially fails to adequately portray reality.

Generally, the beef industry can be broken down into semi-autonomous segments: cow-calf, stocker, feedlot, and cull breeding stock (dairy and beef). Each segment operates under its own set of production goals, but all are inherently linked as they ultimately function as a unit toward the production of retail beef. So, where are feed and water antibiotics used in the beef cattle industry? According to the USDA Economic Research Division, different segments of the beef cattle industry report using feed and/or water antibiotics very differently. For the cow-calf segment, only 15.8% of operations reported adding medically important antibiotics to feed or water for any class of animal or any purpose in 2007. The majority of these respondents reported the reason for adding antibiotics to be prevention of disease, most likely in the form of respiratory disease control in weaned calves or control of Anaplasmosis in breeding stock. In 2011, 75% of feedlots managing over 1000 head (accounting for 48% of cattle on feed) reported adding antibiotics other than ionophores or coccidostats to feed, but reason for addition was not provided. Further, large-scale feedlots were very unlikely to feed antibiotics for longer than 30 days to a group of cattle. In the cull dairy and beef breeding stock segment, numbers are much harder to come by. Lactating dairy cattle are not fed antibiotics outside of ionophores and coccidiostats. Replacement heifers, on the other hand, on 18% of dairy operations and 87% of heifer-raising operations are fed antibiotics. Cull beef breeding stock would be suspected to follow a similar pattern as the cow-calf segment, although intentional feeding to a designated cull is not likely. You may access the full report at

While this data is a little more telling as far as where antibiotics are currently used, it still doesn’t tell us much about actual antibiotic use in our industry. And that, my friends, is the issue. How can we counter negative publicity aimed at our practices if we aren’t fully armed with the facts? I will admit I have not performed an exhaustive search of all available publications on this subject, and I’m sure there is more data out there, but trust me – the data is not immediately available.

The major driver behind these new regulations is the FDA’s desire to obtain a better understanding of how much and why medically important antibiotics are being used. The FDA and industry affiliates including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association came together to develop a plan to address consumer concerns in a proactive fashion. It is my sincere hope that these regulations will be successful in assuring our consumer base that they can be confident in our ability to produce safe, wholesome, and environmentally sound protein while still providing for our families at home. Rather than railing against the regulation, embrace the opportunity to finally get out the truth. Even more importantly, use the situation as a catalyst for improvement in production practices. Improve vaccination, weaning, biosecurity, and nutrition insufficiencies now to decrease the need for antibiotics down the road. We’re still in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding the future of our industry.