"Aaaaaaa---CHOOOOO! Oh no, not another winter cold!"
When the kids were little, this was a common occurrence in our house. With five little kids, we had every virus and secondary infection known to mankind! Our pediatrician was on speed-dial on our phone. My little redhead had a particularly difficult time with ear infections. Every cold he got would settle in his ears. We learned all the tricks to make him feel better--heat packs, ear drops, pain relievers and finally antibiotics. I admit, there were times when I was desperate and called the doctor begging for something to relieve his pain.
At one visit that I clearly remember holding my little boy on my lap rocking him and holding a warm compress to his ear, the pediatrician talked to me about the importance of saving antibiotics as a treatment for secondary infections. As a mom of a teary eyed, sore eared little boy, I really didn't care--"Just give him the meds, Doc!" But as time went on, I remembered that discussion--now nearly 15 years ago--and it rings so true.
The same is true for illness in cattle. Of course, cattle get sick! Just as I cared about the comfort and health of my little boy, I truly do care about the health and comfort of my cattle. Right now, we have approximately 350 weaned calves around our ranch that we are feeding. About one hundred of them are steers destined for the feedyard. Fifty are young bulls that will be raised as breeding stock, and the rest are heifers that are being raised for breeding stock as well. That is a lot of "pre-teen" cattle to care for! To make matters worse, the temperature in Kansas was in the 60s last week, but today we woke to a morning thermometer reading of 8 degrees!! Brrrrrrr!!!
That is a huge temperature drop and will make any calf more susceptible to a virus. So this time of year, I spend time in all those calves every day, walking through them, teaching them that I am not to be feared,and looking for signs of illness. If I see a calf with a snotty nose, his head hanging down and ears drooping, I immediately get him in for treatment. An elevated temperature is a sign of a secondary infection--and he needs antibiotics to survive! When I do treat a calf with antibiotics, I also give him a pain reliever (something like children's Tylenol for cattle!) and he goes to a separate pen to have extra care and attention. I get out my recordbook where I keep track of any cattle who receive treatments and write his ID number down, along with the date and what treatment he received. We continue to feed him separately and watch him for signs of recovery, or the need to do something further.
Where did I learn all this animal disease care? From my veterinarian. Shortly after the pediatrician's speech on the judicious use of antibiotics, my local veterinarian and I had a discussion on antibiotics used in livestock--and it was very similar to my talk with the pediatrician. Our vet is frequently on our ranch, helping us care for the cattle. He sees our calves and cows on a regular basis and helps me plan our herd health program--the same way that our pediatrician and I worked together to keep my children healthy years ago. If a calf has new symptoms or doesn't clear the original symptoms of illness, my vet gets a call and he stops by to take a look and suggest a different treatment routine. I work very closely with him to make sure my cattle receive the best treatment for the symptoms that they have.
We do not give a daily antibiotic dose to any of the cattle we own. Cows and calves receive antibiotics only when they need it for the treatment of disease. There are two times that we do use antibiotics in the feed of our cattle--and they are both closely monitored, and only for a short time. First, if a group of calves is experiencing a lot of symptoms of a secondary infection and a large number of the calves in the pen are getting sick, I will (under the direction of the local veterinarian) mix chlortetracycline into their feed for 3-5 days in a row at a low dose. This ensures that every calf receives a dose to clear up any bacterial infection brewing in their system. This is not a cheap practice, so it doesn't make sense to do it often or for long periods of time. I keep track in the same recordbook, which days, which calves and what effect it had.
The other time that I put an antibiotic into the feed for my cattle is during late summer, when horse flies and ticks are abundant in the pasture. These insects are carriers of a disease called anaplasmosis. It is a horrifying disease that destroys the oxygen-carrying capacity of a cow's blood and a cow infected with "anaplas" will die of suffocation after suffering weight loss, fever and loss of strength. The only prevention for anaplasmosis is a low level of antibiotics in a cow's bloodstream. There is no way to tell which cows will become infected, and it would be cost prohibitive as well as be a huge waste of time to give 500+ cows a daily shot of antibiotics while they are living out in the pasture. So we put a low-dose of the same antibiotic that we use for calves in their salt and mineral mix while they are in the pasture. This ensures cattle that are healthy and comfortable!
The first step in ensuring a safe food supply is caring for the animals. That is my job every day and I take my job very seriously. Let me refer back to the pen of calves I'm preparing to head to the feedyard. Those steers are doing great! We have not had to treat many of them, as very few have been sick. The ones that have received antibiotics are in my recordbook and I've watched them fully recover. Once they are taken to the feedyard that we use (only 5 miles from our ranch), they are treated in the exact same way! They are watched daily to make sure they are healthy, and if a sick calf is found, they will be evaluated to see if it is a secondary infection and if antibiotics are needed. If so, the calf receives a dose of the appropriate antibiotics and his ID number is noted in a recordbook along with the antibiotic used and when it was used. The one difference is that they then send me a bill to pay for the added labor and expense of the antibiotic!
I am in close contact with the people who run the feedyard. They have my cell phone number and I have theirs, and we talk frequently to keep updated on how my cattle are doing. I am able to visit the feedyard at any time to see my cattle and make sure they are healthy and comfortable--and I do visit! These guys do a great job caring for my cattle--and they are typical feedyard operators. Running a feedyard is a business, but you must also love the life, because it is hard, dirty work in outdoor conditions with all that Mother Nature can throw at you all year long!
Just a side note, that little snotty nosed redhaired boy is now 18 yrs old and is 6'6" tall and is a freshman in college! He outgrew his ear infections and is a healthy, active young man with an awesome future in agriculture!