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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Antibiotic-Free Meat": Always the Goal, Not Always Best

We set goals in life to give ourselves an ideal to aim for and to motivate us to reach a little higher than we thought we could.  Everyone of us has felt that fulfilling sense of achievement upon attaining a lofty goal and undoubtedly also the sting of disappointment when despite your best intentions you fell just short of that elusive target.

As livestock producers we are constantly setting new goals and developing strategies to improve the well-being and productivity of the animals we are fortunate to work with and care for every day. Not only because it is our livelihood but because we are truly concerned about the comfort and health of the livestock we raise. I am concerned that a portion of today’s consumers believe we have lost this connection to our animals and that agriculture has turned into nothing more than a ruthless corporate machine driven by greed. In reality the many advances in modern technology, medicine and behavior research have enabled individual farmers and ranchers to take better care of their animals than ever before.

At our own little cattle operation in the flint hills we set goals for everything from pregnancy rate in the cows to calf survivability and weight at weaning. None of these production goals can be achieved without focusing on both the nutrition and health of the cowherd.

Above some of our newly weaned calves can be seen eagerly lining the bunk to get their breakfast. An image that indicates they are feeling good and ready to grow. Weaning is a necessary but especially vulnerable time in any young animal’s life. The stress of being away from their mother, put into a new environment and fed a new diet can sometimes lead to illness. This year we have been especially fortunate and met our health goal of avoiding sickness and thereby the need to give any antibiotics or treatments (knock on wood). By employing a strong vaccination program prior to weaning, allowing the calves to visibly see their mothers across the fence during weaning, and providing the best possible nutrition we were able to minimize the stress of the event resulting in improved calf health and comfort. It is through the ingenuity of modern agriculture research that we have access to tools and information that enable us to reach such goals.

We won’t bask in the glory of this small victory for long as we know all too well that despite your best health management efforts cattle, much like people, can still get a respiratory infection, an eye infection, an upset stomach or find any number of ways to injure themselves. And when the inevitable does happen we won’t allow them to suffer. We will do whatever we can to bring them back to full health as quickly as possible; including treatment with the appropriate dose and type of antibiotic. If you are concerned about antibiotic usage in food animals take comfort in knowing that there are strict guidelines set forth by the FDA to ensure safe withdrawal periods for any drug administered to an animal prior to harvest. Years of research and resources have gone into establishing the efficacy of these withdrawal times and food safety.

In an ironic twist of events a calf from last year’s crop successfully made it through the first year of life completely healthy until one fateful day she showed up in the pasture with a huge gash above her knee and a painful limp. We followed the veterinarians orders by keeping the wound clean and giving her Penicillin to combat infection. Although she did show some improvement over time, the wound was so deep that her mobility was never fully restored. Instead of subjecting her to a life of pain attempting to keep up with the herd we decided to harvest her for our own freezer beef.

I firmly believe that livestock producers in this country consciously do what is best for their livestock and consumers; continuing to set the standard for food safety and quality throughout the world. We must continue to support the responsible use of antibiotics in food animals and recognize that while “antibiotic-free” is an admirable goal, in reality it may not always be in the best interest of the animal. 

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