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Antibiotic Use on the Farm: Does It Impact Your Food at the Table?

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Bacteria become antibiotic resistant when the antibiotic kills sensitive bacteria, leaving behind antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You’ve likely heard news about this issue, whether in the context of human overuse of antibiotics or use in animals.

North Dakota pig farmer, Brad Greenway, tends to his hogs.

“It isn’t just a Midwest United States issue, it’s an international issue,” says Brad Greenway, a South Dakota pig farmer and member of the National Pork Board’s Antibiotic Task Force. I recently discussed animal antibiotic use with Brad, who says farmers recognize the need to stay on top of this global issue.

Antibiotic resistance is an issue that encompasses animal health and human health. Brad reports that antibiotics are highly monitored and only used when needed.

Your Children See the Pediatrician, Farm Animals See the Veterinarian

If you have children, you know that going to the pediatrician for check-ups and vaccines are important. Vaccines are an effective and safe way to prevent widespread disease. Antibiotics aren’t effective for viral illnesses, such as the common cold, but are very effective for bacterial infections. If your child has a bacterial infection of any kind, an antibiotic can be used to shorten the duration or reduce the severity of the illness. Your pediatrician determines when an antibiotic will work.

Consumers may not realize that just as you work with your pediatrician, livestock farmers work closely with veterinarians on a regular basis. Since antibiotics can only be used when medically necessary, farmers are in weekly contact with the vets who monitor and advise farmers all of the time.

Brad stresses how important it is to work closely with the farm’s veterinarian so that animals are treated with the right antibiotic, at the right time, in the right dose. A pig farmer could lose 20-30 piglets in a day and cause more stress on the herd without responsible antibiotic use.

Are Antibiotic Residues Left in Our Food?

No trace of antibiotic is left in the animal when it goes to market. Vets advise farmers about withdrawal times as well as the type and dose of medicine. Each medicine has a withdrawal schedule, which can be 24 hours to 60 days, depending on the type of medicine. This withdrawal is highly monitored and assures there is no residue left in the meat we consume.

“As an industry, we are willing to make the necessary changes that benefit the animal, the farm, and the environment.”

What are Farmers Doing About Antibiotic Resistance

Brad has traveled all over the world to see how progress is made with antibiotic use. The number one goal is to use antibiotics only when necessary. To meet this goal, he recommends that farmers have a strong relationship with their vet. Along with their vet, a farmer can continually evaluate animals that may be under stress when weaned or transported.

Brad evaluates his pigs for different factors during potential stress:

  • Water usage: If pigs are ill or having health issues, their water intake decreases. When a farmer notices this, they will contact the vet to evaluate for possible illness
  • Activity: The general mood of the animal is evaluated continuously. Brad evaluates the piglet barns and looks for any piglets that are listless or have changes in activity, which could be a sign of illness.

Every antibiotic, whether an injectable or oral antibiotic given in feed or water, requires a prescription from a veterinarian. Antibiotics that are medically important to human illness cannot be used to promote growth in animals either.

Farmers employ standards in the use and documentation of antibiotics:

  • Communication with the veterinarian: Farmers stay in touch with their vet, who determines any need to treat the whole barn to prevent illness or else experience losses
  • Document everything: Farmers document the type, dose, duration, and withdrawal periods when antibiotics are used.
  • Follow withdrawal schedules.
  • Improve documentation tools: Brad is concerned about proper use of antibiotics and looks for better tools that farmers can use to document and track antibiotic use. Currently, antibiotic use is documented based on sales. Farmers and vets are working on developing new tools that could better document use per animal, per pound.

Farmers want to keep their animals safe and healthy so they can get food onto your table, and their own. They want to be efficient in cost and natural resources. Losing animals to illness costs the farm money, as would overuse of antibiotics. Keeping animals in a standardized and safe environment reduces disease risk and stress in the animal.

Farmers are continuously evaluating their animals. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

To read more from Rosanne, visit chewthefacts.com.

Rosanne Rust is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.