The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
Growth in popularity of natural, organic and “antibiotic free” labeling for meat and dairy products has provided options for consumers and opportunities for producers. At the same time, concerns have emerged that incentives in these programs could discourage timely treatment of sick cattle, since antibiotic therapy can disqualify them from “never-ever” programs.
This week, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) issued a position statement on raised-without-antibiotics (RWA) programs, emphasizing the need to prioritize animal health and welfare in treatment decisions.
The statement focuses on three critical points:
- Within the context of a written Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR), there must be documented strategies in place that allow for responsible use of antibiotics when needed.
- Responsible RWA programs should recognize that some cattle will still develop diseases or sustain injuries that require antibiotic treatment.
- Responsible RWA programs must also include alternative marketing plans for those animals that do require antibiotic treatment.
On one hand, efforts to raise cattle without antibiotic use can drive beneficial innovation. Producers in these programs need to focus on prevention, using well-designed vaccination protocols supported with good handling practices, excellent nutrition, biosecurity and in many cases, use of novel products including probiotics, prebiotics and targeted supplements to boost immunity. Without question, innovations in preventive care can benefit producers, animals and consumers.
However, while consumers and regulators want reductions in antibiotic use, society also demands continuous improvements toward animal well-being in livestock production. A critical step for producers should be to establish a VCPR with a veterinarian who understands the operation’s goals. If you market through an organic or RWA program, find a veterinarian who can help you adopt sound, science-based management practices to boost immunity, reduce disease exposure and optimize animal welfare. Within that plan, include specific protocols for timely treatments for sick or injured animals. Also, engage your veterinarian in training your employees, ensuring they understand the reasons for treatment as well as the reasons for preventive management.
The decision to treat a sick animal might seem like a defeat if treatment disqualifies it from a premium marketing program, but it is a win for the animal. And even if that animal fails to earn RWA premiums, timely treatment prevents potentially greater losses from chronic illness, death loss and disease exposure in the rest of the herd. If the need to treat becomes common or excessive, work with your veterinarian to refine your preventive strategies. Use it as a learning experience, but do not delay treatment or penalize employees who pull cattle based on treatment protocols.