Antibiotic use on Canadian cow-calf operations

Research on the Record with Reynold Bergen

Antibiotic use records are important for producers who want to track the effectiveness of the antibiotics they use. Industry groups need antibiotic use data to refute misleading claims about our production practices. Even restaurant chains and meat companies marketing “antibiotic-free” beef need records to keep treated animals out of their “never-ever” supply stream. When it comes to antibiotic use in the beef industry, most of the attention is focused on the feedlot sector. That’s because most of the antibiotic use occurs there, and because large feedlots work closely with specialized veterinarians and have developed sophisticated software to support animal health protocols and recording of animal health treatments. But antibiotic use at the cow-calf level is also important. For example, calves may not respond as well to antibiotics at the feedlot if they have been exposed to a related antibiotic before leaving home.

The most recent reports on antibiotic use in cow-calf operations in Eastern Canada (Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research 72:109) and Western Canada (Preventive Veterinary Medicine 90:55) are nearly 10 years old. The Western Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network (WCCCSN) initiative supported under the 2013-18 Beef Science Cluster provided an opportunity to gather updated information regarding antibiotic use on cow-calf operations.

What they did: Dr. Cheryl Waldner and co-workers at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine surveyed 100 cow-calf operations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba about what antibiotics they used in 2013-14, how they used them, and what they used them for in breeding bulls, cows, and calves (before and after weaning). The use of both medically important antibiotics (MIAs; antibiotics that are also important to treat human infections) and ionophores (not used in human medicine) were reported. This study has been accepted for publication in the Canadian Veterinary Journal (Antimicrobial usage in western Canadian cow-calf herds).

What they learned: In a nutshell, most herds used MIAs, but very few animals were given MIAs.

Bulls were given MIA in 72 per cent of herds (mostly for lameness, but also for eye or respiratory infections). In 59 per cent of herds, fewer than five per cent of bulls were treated with MIA, and only four per cent of herds treated more than 30 per cent of bulls with MIA.

Cows were given MIA in 95 per cent of herds (mainly for lameness, but also for reproductive, eye and respiratory infections, and mastitis). In 82 per cent of herds, fewer than five per cent of cows were treated using MIA, and only three per cent of herds treated more than 30 per cent of cows with MIA.

Nursing calves were given MIA in 95 per cent of herds (mainly for respiratory disease, diarrhea and navel ill). In 48 per cent of herds, fewer than five per cent of calves were treated using MIA, and 18 per cent of herds treated more than 30 per cent of calves with MIA.

Weaned calves were given MIA in 85 per cent of herds (mainly for respiratory and eye infections, and arthritis). In 50 per cent of herds, fewer than five per cent of calves were treated with an MIA, and 15 per cent of herds treated more than 30 per cent of calves with MIA.

The most commonly used MIAs were oxytetracycline (e.g. Liquamycin, Alamycin and many others), sulfonamides (found in many scour boluses and suspensions), penicillin (e.g PropPen LA, Pen Vet 3000 and many others), trimethoprim/sulfonamide combinations (e.g. Borgal, Trimidox and Trivetrin) and florfenicol (e.g. Nuflor, Resflor and Florkem).

What it means: Producers participating in the WCCCS used MIAs selectively. Although MIAs were used in most herds, very few cattle were actually treated. Of the four most commonly used MIAs, only two (florfenicol and trimethoprim/sulfonamide combinations) currently need a prescription. The other three can be legally purchased over-the-counter for a few more months.

The producers who participated in the WCCCS were initially identified by their regular veterinarians, so they may be more likely to have formal treatment protocols and use prescription antibiotics than producers who purchase all their veterinary products over-the-counter from farm stores. But starting this December, all livestock producers will need a prescription from a veterinarian with whom they have a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship before they will be able to access any medically important antibiotics. Access to ionophores (e.g. monensin) should not change, but rules about who can sell MIA may vary from province to province. If this is news to you, or if you don’t already have regular contact with a veterinarian, start planning now! More information about these Health Canada changes are available at

The Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off has increased from $1 to $2.50 per head in most provinces, with approximately 75 cents allocated to the Beef Cattle Research Council. Canada’s National Beef Strategy outlined why the check-off increase was needed, and how it would be invested. One goal laid out in the strategy was a 15 per cent increase in beef demand, partly through increased public understanding of beef industry animal husbandry practices and communicating the role of responsible antibiotic stewardship practices. Thanks to the increased Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off, the surveillance network initiative is being expanded from a Western Canadian initiative to a coast-to-coast Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network under the 2018-23 Beef Science Cluster.

The Beef Research Cluster is funded by the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada with additional contributions from provincial beef industry groups and governments to advance research and technology transfer supporting the Canadian beef industry’s vision to be recognized as a preferred supplier of healthy, high-quality beef, cattle and genetics.

About the author


Dr. Reynold Bergen is the science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.

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