In my experience, dairy farmers are hard-working, honest people who place great value on personal responsibility. It is unfortunate that we have seen news reports lately that criticize all of animal agriculture. I believe that some of the instances deserve criticism and are blatantly unacceptable. We have a responsibility to treat the animals we care for in a humane and ethical manner at all times — from birth to death. 

However, many in the veterinary profession are concerned that more and more regulations will be applied to animal agriculture as a result of these events and public perception. All of us involved need to take a hard look and evaluate how we are running our farms, especially when it comes to drug use. We need to show the world that we can be responsible with drug use in the animals we raise for food production. 

Here's how to address responsible drug use on your farm.

  • Administer medications according to directions. Don't use the wrong medication for a particular disease, an inappropriate dose, or an inappropriate route of administration.
  • Use antibiotics only when necessary. I see cows with no evidence of infection receive antibiotics. To combat this, evaluate the amount of antibiotics you use on a routine basis. For example, how many bottles of a particular drug have you used in the past year versus the number of fresh cows during that year? Also, keep in mind that in certain cases of mastitis, antibiotics may not be necessary.
  • Use the correct antibiotics. Not all antibiotics work equally well for various diseases. Work with your veterinarian to determine which drugs to use in which circumstance.
  • Use appropriate diagnostics. This includes performing a physical exam of the sick cow. It is frustrating to see a cow treated with antibiotics that has never had her temperature taken! Also, perform milk cultures before treating a cow for mastitis. Numerous studies have shown that we can decrease antibiotic use by culturing all cases of mastitis before instituting treatment.
  • Never use a prohibited drug in a food animal. There is no reason to ever use a drug that is illegal to use. Is that cow worth facing an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or losing your milk license? 
  • Use approved drugs over those not labeled for the disease you are treating. An FDA ruling allows us to use drugs in an extra-label manner, provided certain guidelines are followed. We will find it harder and harder to keep the drugs approved for food animals on the market if we do not all follow the rules.
  • Do not use compounded drugs. Medications that have been mixed up with unknown ingredients are not produced under the same quality and safety best-management practices of a federally inspected pharmaceutical plant. There are plenty of approved medications on the market. Don't use homemade remedies.
  • Consider beef-quality issues. Many of the animals we treat end up harvested as beef, even though they are dairy cows today. Therefore, follow Dairy Quality Assurance guidelines for drug administration.
  • If your treatment protocol isn't working, find out why. Work with your veterinarian to arrive at the correct diagnosis. Ask him to perform appropriate diagnostic tests and modify your protocols as needed.

All of us in the food animal industry need to take the lead in ensuring that consumers are confident in the products we market. Use drugs in a responsible manner, under the guidance of the veterinarian who prescribes them. This is an important proactive step to maintain this confidence.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc. in Ashland, Ohio.