I finally broke down and joined Twitter about a month ago. I do a lot more following than tweeting, mostly because I use it to keep up on the grain and livestock market drivers for the day.
Tonight as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I took note of a couple of statements regarding antibiotic use in livestock and GMO (genetically modified organism, in case you live in a cave) crops. These two hot-button topics are being discussed everywhere it seems. I'm going to settle the debate once and for all regarding both of these issues.
Do you believe me? Good grief I hope not. I must be the only person on the world wide web that is man enough to say "I don't know!"
So, here's my take on things. For today I'll just tackle antibiotic usage.
Antibiotics are something I use on sick animals. There are three or four different types that I have on hand. Some cost more, some last longer, some act quicker, some work on certain diseases but not others. When an animal is truly sick, I would consider it unethical to not give it something to help it heal. Most people probably agree with me so far. It's the same thing we do when the doc prescribes us some amoxicillin for an ear infection.
It seems the rub many people have is with the thought that livestock (even healthy ones) are mass-fed large quantities of antibiotics by greedy cattlemen to increase growth rate. Let's dissect that idea a little bit.
Yes, cattle (I'm not venturing into other species, I'll stick with what I know) are sometimes mass-treated (meaning everybody gets it) with antibiotics. I'll give an example. When we ship a truckload of freshly-weaned 7-month-old calves to a feedlot, they will usually get some antibiotics in their feed for 3-5 days (depends on the formulation) sometime during the first two weeks after arrival. In this case, antibiotics are used according to the label for "control" of a disease, to keep it from spreading. The reason is that these calves have undergone a fair amount of stress – leaving mom, riding in a truck for a few hours, arriving at a new place with other calves from other places with other bugs they brought with them, and having a diet change (no more milk). That's quite a bit to deal with. The stress they are dealing with in combination with exposure to bacteria and viruses they are not used to can be too much for their immune system. Sick calves don't eat or drink water much, compounding the problems. Feeding an antibiotic shortly after arrival helps get the calves through likely the toughest part of their life, so they can remain healthy and enter the food chain eventually. Nobody wants sick animals entering the food chain. Except coyotes. And vultures. They are definitely anti-antibiotics.
So, what about feeding antibiotics to help them grow faster? Well, yes that has some truth to it as well. Don't freak out…just breathe and keep reading. There is a class of antibiotics called ionophores. I actually had no idea they were actually an antibiotic until recently – I've always heard them called ionophores, probably because they are used differently and have a very narrow scope compared to the others. There are two products on the market that are being used – Bovatec (lasalocid sodium) and Rumensin (monesin). They help cattle with feed efficiency (grow more on the same amount of feed) as well as prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic intestinal disease. Neither lasalocid sodium or monesin, as far as I can tell, are used in human medicine. They apparently are very safe to use, because they do not require a vet's prescription. Many others require it. Now, before you go tell all your friends that cattle are fed growth-promoting antibiotics, take 10 minutes and research these two drugs. Don't take my word for it, but what I found out about monesin in particular is that it is produced naturally from the bacteria Strep cinnamonensis, and actually decreases methane emissions from cattle.
So, antibiotics have been shown to provide some really great benefits to people who raise livestock, myself included. It isn't all roses though. There are things we can and should be doing to reduce the need for antibiotic usage in livestock. Reducing stress is the most important thing. Proper vaccination protocols help, as does proper nutrition. The thing is, these are all moving targets. They are different for each ranch or feedlot and can be challenging to get right. And, some things just can't be avoided. That said, antibiotics can be an easy out for neglecting other aspects of animal husbandry.
I could go on and on about the things we can do to create healthier, more resilient animals. And we need to get better at those things. Some things I'm working on currently are improving my handling abilities and analyzing our mineral program. By improving my cattle-handling skills, I can get the cattle to do what I need them to without causing them additional stress. Regarding the mineral program, today I mailed off some hair clippings from a few healthy calves and one sick one to see if there is a mineral deficiency that might have led to the one getting sick.
My opinion about antibiotic resistance is that there is a human element involved at all levels. Whether it be sick animals or sick people, we use them a lot. There are some guys who subscribe to the "if a little is good, a lot is better" mentality when it comes to treating sick cattle with injectable antibiotics. That's not a responsible (or legal) approach to using antibiotics. The good part about antibiotic use in livestock is that they very seldom refuse to finish their doses. It is administered through an injection or in their feed. So, it is up to the caretaker to properly administer the drugs, use them as directed, and only after performing the proper animal husbandry. The same is true when we use antibiotics on ourselves. It is up to us to take care of our bodies reasonably in order to lessen the need for antibiotics; and when they are called for, to take them as directed.
I've had to take antibiotics twice in the past year, and it was a challenge to remember to take them on schedule. If I didn't care, and didn't know better, I would have quit before the regimen was over. I was feeling better – why keep taking them? It is my opinion that using antibiotics according to the label in livestock has a much smaller role in creating resistant bacteria than instances of people not finishing their oral antibiotic prescribed by their doctor.
Maybe you've got some strong feelings one way or another about this subject. That's fine. I encourage you to make sure you are justified in your opinion. Do your own research. You might find that sometimes things aren't as black-and-white as we'd like to think.
I'd be happy to answer any question you might have about how we use – or avoid using – antibiotics on our ranch.
It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.
– Will Rogers