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Tips for reducing antibiotic use on the ranch

Producers and veterinarians adapt to new rules around livestock antibiotic use

Beef producers used to be able to pick up antibiotics at their favourite farm supply store or local small town co-op, but things changed on December 1, 2018. Since then, Health Canada has mandated that all medically important livestock antibiotics require a veterinary prescription. While producers and veterinarians alike have dealt with some challenges that arose from the new rules, they have adapted.

Stephen Hughes of Longview, Alta., runs Chinook Ranch, a family-owned operation. He recently spoke during the Beef Cattle Research Council session on Alternatives to Antibiotics at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in Calgary, Alta., and shared insights with Canadian Cattlemen ahead of the conference. For Hughes, the changeover to prescription antibiotics has had little effect on his cow-calf and yearling operation.

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“I’ve always bought all of our antimicrobials from our vet anyway and in some ways it is better to have a conversation every time I want to buy a product,” Hughes says. Hughes says they still use antibiotics on animals requiring treatment, as it would be cruel not to be able to have the tools needed to treat sick animals. Obtaining a prescription now opens a positive dialogue between himself and his vet.

Dr. Steve Hendrick, DVM, agrees that in some ways things haven’t changed much now that prescriptions are necessary. Hendrick has an extensive background in research and academia and now operates out of a private practice near Coaldale, Alta. He provided a veterinary perspective during the Beef Cattle Research Council session in Calgary and also agreed to an interview before the session.

“We already had protocols and prescriptions in place for treatments so our clients were sitting in pretty good shape,” Hendrick explains. “Now we are developing a better relationship with more producers and guiding them so they are using the right product for the right reason.”

In spite of some benefits, Hendrick acknowledges that veterinarians are now dealing with more paperwork.

“I can see how it can become overwhelming to track all the details but luckily we have been set up with good software,” he says. But, he says, it’s likely a challenge for many mixed practices across the country, adding that along with balancing small and large animal work, mixed veterinarians now need to find the time to create prescriptions and develop protocols.

Since moving to a range calving program twenty years ago, the Chinook Ranch has used fewer antibiotics.
photo: Stephen Hughes

Dr. Victor Kernaleguen, DVM and past president of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association, agrees. Kernaleguen runs a mixed animal practice out of Melfort, Sask., with a focus on preventative medicine.

“In addition to prescriptions, we try and label withdrawals and provide other valuable information on products and put in that extra level of effort. But as mixed animal people, most of us are quite busy,” he explains. A shortage of veterinarians coming in and a generation of veterinarians looking to leave compounds the workload.

In both his research and in private practice, Hendrick has watched the use of antimicrobials change over time, especially in the feedlot sector. As different products were developed, it became standard to treat cattle on arrival, saving labour and time, while also controlling diseases such as bovine respiratory disease.

“We started seeing lowered mortality rates,” Hendrick says, but adds that chronic illnesses started to show up as well. “I do worry long term we can’t keep on doing what we’ve been doing.”

“The less antibiotics we can use the better,” says Kernaleguen, adding that resistance is a real risk. Prudent use of antimicrobials will help ensure that the tool will remain effective when it is needed most, he adds.

So what are useful alternatives to antibiotics? Everyone agrees that prevention and vaccination are critical.

“A strong and well-thought-out vaccination program for both cows and calves is paramount,” Hughes says, adding that providing adequate nutrition plays a big role.

“We move cattle a lot to maximize nutrition and to keep the herd on clean ground, especially during calving,” Hughes says. On Chinook Ranch they transitioned to calving on grass two decades ago. “When we went to range calving instead of having them all in a corral, our health became better.”

Less stress is best. “Some of the big things producers could look at are weaning stress and low-stress handling,” Hendrick says.

At the cow-calf level, preconditioning is a benefit. “You want to take all the stresses off the cattle, do all the preventative maintenance on these herds so these calves become more bullet-proof,” Kernaleguen says.

It’s best to vaccinate calves three weeks prior to weaning and start them on pellets or feed. “When you do this, I think you truly are developing a market for your calves,” Kernaleguen says. “Vaccination should be viewed as an investment and not a cost.”

Hughes preconditions his calves and sells them by video auction. They are also eligible for the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration program.

“I don’t worry so much about getting paid a premium to precondition; it’s the responsible thing to do for the next guy,” Hughes says, adding that he keeps most of his calves and appreciates a positive weaning outcome himself.

“In the big picture, you’re not trying to get something over on your buyers, you need to build relationships,” he explains.

Other than preconditioning, Hendrick also highlights the importance of becoming more aware of biosecurity risks. Ranchers may like to think they run a closed herd, but they need strategies for health risks around things such as fenceline contact or sourcing breeding stock from outside the herd.

On the clinical side of things, Hendrick would like to see more work done in viral diagnostics.

“I hope that down the road we will have better tools that will help us decide if we can use an antibiotic that will or won’t help in a viral situation,” Hendrick says. “Our natural tendency is to want to do something when an animal is sick, and with viral infections, it takes confidence to tell producers they can’t or shouldn’t treat.”

Overall, the big-picture benefits of careful antibiotic use are evident.

“Antimicrobial stewardship and responsible social license goes hand in hand,” Hughes says. “I want to create a healthier, stronger herd so that our use of antimicrobials is limited.”

Tara Mulhern Davidson is a writer and a beef and forage consultant. She ranches with her family in southwestern Saskatchewan.

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Tara Mulhern Davidson is a rancher, writer, and agrologist from Ponteix, Sask.

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