Animal Health Matters: Is antibiotic use in livestock leveling off?

Russ Daly
Special to the American News
Russ Daly

The Food and Drug Administration publishes an annual report on sales of antibiotics used in food animals.

Such a report is probably too nerdy for most, but I think it’s quite interesting, especially when I relate it to antibiotic use practices of the veterinarians and farms I work with.

According to the most recent report from 2020, animal health companies sold slightly less of these products compared to 2019. For the past three years, this number has been pretty flat. The year prior (2017), however, showed a precipitous drop in livestock antibiotic sales.

Livestock producers and their veterinarians all know why. On Jan, 1, 2017, the Veterinary Feed Directive rule went into effect. That rule required livestock producers to get a form (akin to a prescription) from a veterinarian before they could add antibiotics to their animals’ feed. Prior to that, feed ingredients such as tetracycline could be purchased over the counter with no veterinary oversight.

If the intention of the Veterinary Feed Directive rule was to cut sales of antibiotics for food animals, it worked. That newly required step of getting a veterinarian to sign off on the act of throwing tetracycline crumbles into the feed wagon created the opportunity to evaluate and better refine those practices. The hassle factor likely played a part as well. The extra paperwork step caused some producers to just see if they could make do without. And in a lot of cases, they could.

I should explain here we’re only talking about “medically important” antibiotics: those deemed important to human, not necessarily animal, health. Older drugs such as tetracyclines, penicillin and sulfas are included in this medically important designation, as well as the cephalosporins, macrolides and fluoroquinolones used in injectable medications. Feed additives such as ionophores don’t fall into this category. They don’t have any uses in human medicine.

Preserving the usefulness of antibiotics for treating human infections is the goal of the FDA’s regulations for the drugs in food-producing animals. Using fewer antibiotics equates to a lower chance bacteria will gain resistance against them. As animal caretakers, we also have to recognize the importance of keeping these products available and effective for treating infections in the critters under our care.

Not all antibiotics or livestock classes contribute equally to overall purchases of these medically important drugs. Cattle and pigs combined account for more than 80% of sales. Feed-grade drugs, on the basis of kilograms of antibiotics sold, accounts for 60%, while water antibiotics are 30% of the total. You might think you go through a lot of bottles of injectable antibiotics on your farm, but they don’t contribute much to the whole picture. Two-thirds of the total is tetracyclines, most of which go into cattle feed.

I hesitate to call the past three years the “Post Veterinary Feed Directive” world, because the directive is still alive, ingrained into the production and business practices of cattle and pig raisers and their veterinarians. It’s unlikely, therefore, that we’ll see huge year-to-year changes in antibiotic sales for food animals in the years to come, unless other similarly drastic rule changes are made.

It’s my expectation and hope that the sales and usage patterns for antibiotics in livestock gradually decline. That would indicate that our use of these critical animal health tools is becoming better targeted. More importantly, it would indicate that we are becoming better with disease prevention methods, nutrition and stress reduction for the benefit of our animals.

A national report like this is made up of the aggregate actions of thousands of livestock producers like yourself. If you’re like most, your farm’s antibiotic use probably swings up and down wildly from year to year. Bad weather, changes in the types of animals you raise, nutrition and other factors all affect the need for treating your animals. But hopefully your gradual trend is downward, too.

Many producers found through the Veterinary Feed Directive transition that their veterinarian was much more than an antibiotic salesperson – they provided valuable advice on preventive practices that reduce the need for those products. It’s likely that you could, too.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.