As of January 2017, the FDA began a stricter regulation of antibiotics commonly used in the animal-feeding industry. Livestock and poultry producers alike have been accused of overfeeding various antibiotics, largely for growth promotion purposes (i.e., for increased feed efficiency and profitability).
The ones the medical industry and the consumer have been most concerned with are those deemed medically important for human use. The perception is: Various infectious agents that affect humans have become more resistant to antibiotics commonly used for years treating humans.
Transmission of bacteria (in this case, antibiotic-resistant bacteria) from animals to humans is extremely complex. A more likely cause for this problem in people has been overprescription of antibiotics by practitioners as well as antibiotic mismanagement by the patient. Nonetheless, the livestock and poultry industries are under ever-increasing pressure to minimize (or eliminate) the use of fed antibiotics.
While the focus has been largely on feed-delivered products, i.e., those used largely for growth promotion, this focus and concern has bled over to the use of therapeutic, injectable products as well largely due to basic misunderstanding of animal health management by the consumer. Demand for organic and antibiotic-free food products is an ever-increasing trend. The dairy industry is at the forefront of this effort.
Fortunately, the use of fed antibiotics has been fairly minimal over the years. Use of products like chlortetracycline has been common in calf programs to reduce scouring and respiratory issues. Use of other products like Rumensin has become widespread. However, while Rumensin (monensin sodium) is technically an antibiotic, it has received less scrutiny since it is not considered a drug medically important in humans and is used to improve feed efficiency and not for growth promotion.
So, in general, the dairy may be somewhat less of a target for the antibiotic reduction/elimination crowd than the pork or poultry industry, but the pressure is there.
Minimizing antibiotic use on-farm
Most farms, dairy or otherwise, I have worked with over the years have always made it a point to minimize antibiotic use, if for no other reason than to help reduce costs. While the supporting data has been available for years concerning the efficacy of these products, the added cost which cannot always “pencil out” can be considerable. Additionally, other injectable, therapeutic drugs have also become exceptionally expensive over recent years. If there is an opportunity to reduce all antibiotic use on the farm, but not at the expense of the animal’s well-being and health, it should be considered. It will help the farm fit better into the consumer’s perception as well as potentially reduce costs.
That said, with the goal of antibiotic use reduction in mind, the producer should work with his or her veterinarian, nutritionist and farm staff to formulate a workable plan. Reducing antibiotic use effectively will not happen overnight, especially if the farm is already heavily dependent on these tools, like many are. Secondly, putting such a program into place is multifaceted and may require changes in several areas of farm management.
A very significant component of an antibiotic reduction plan is the nutritional program. Years of research and countless studies have linked nutrition and animal health on the dairy. We build nutrition programs to accomplish several things. Most obviously, the nutrition program is designed to support profitable (hopefully) production, components and reproduction. Animal health is an equally important factor that must be considered when a nutritional program is designed and implemented. Let’s consider a few of the steps that can be taken to support animal health with the goal of reducing antibiotic usage on the farm:
1. Basic, sound nutrition. While this sounds very basic and overly simplistic, maintaining a sound, properly balanced nutrition program, especially with farm economics as they have been, can be difficult. Maintaining a proper balance of nutrient delivery to the animal is not nearly as simple as it sounds, particularly when every penny counts. But as a reminder, dry matter intake (DMI), protein and energy balance, proper fiber levels, mineral and vitamin levels, overall ration digestibility are all important for production and reproduction as well as animais health.
2. Feed diets appropriate for transitions, stage of production, genetics, age/parity, environment, stress levels. All these factors and more affect nutrient requirements for the animal and should be taken into consideration. The more accurately (precision feeding) cows are fed, the better production, reproduction and health (PRH) will be supported.
3. Mix and deliver feed as accurately as possible.
4. Adjust rations as needed when dictated by ingredients (particularly forages) change.
5. Maintain a plentiful supply of clean, fresh water. This cannot be overstated.
6. Take steps to reduce stress. This includes:
a. Ensure adequate bedding and resting accommodations – do not overcrowd.
b. Ensure adequate bunk space.
c. Take steps to reduce heat/cold stress.
d. Monitor foot and leg health. Trim hooves as needed, use effective footbaths, etc.
7. Overall good farm hygiene. This includes all areas of the farm: pens, parlor, feed storage and mixing, etc
8. Monitor for mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are immunodepressants and are found virtually everywhere. Feed a good, broad-spectrum toxin binder.
9. Consider feeding additives that have been proven by sound research to enhance health performance in the cow and or calf.
Quite a number of additives and products have been identified as having some positive effect on the health and performance of the animal. These include yeast and yeast cell wall products, various direct-fed microbials, essential oil (plant extracts), mycotoxin binders, enzyme sources, etc. In many cases, the initial effect of feeding additives of this nature is to aid in stress reduction. Again, stress is well-known to suppress immune performance, so steps that can reduce stress in the animal will support health and overall animal performance.
There are an unlimited number of combinations of products/additives that may work synergistically in the animal to improve animal health and performance, and potentially reduce or eliminate the need for certain fed medications. The proper additive or additive combination as well as general feeding management protocols will take some research as well as trial and error to establish on every dairy.
Every farm is unique and will require a specific program. Make sure everything you use has a specific purpose and has sound data support. Every individual component comes with a cost which needs to be identified and proven economically. There needs to be a positive return on investment.
The pressure on the dairyman (and every other livestock and poultry producer) to reduce antibiotic use is here to stay. While in some cases this can make life and farm management more difficult, in many cases it is forcing producers to become better managers. Things that help improve management (and hopefully profitability) should be considered positive steps in the right direction.
Dr. Steve Blezinger, is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Email Dr. Steve Blezinger or call at (903) 352-3475.