Antimicrobial resistance is a significant global public health concern, and the use of antibiotics for agricultural animals is often cited as one potential factor that may be contributing to the problem.
The continuing effectiveness of antimicrobial drugs is also of vital importance for animal agriculture from a disease control and treatment perspective.
If bacteria for diseases such as bovine respiratory disease developed resistance to the antimicrobials we use for treatment, the sick cattle would not respond to treatment.
This could result in higher death losses and a significant animal welfare problem.
We also want to ensure that cattle are not harbouring antimicrobial resistant bacteria that could potentially pass their resistance on to human pathogens.
In Canada, organizations such as the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS) help monitor antimicrobial resistance in humans, livestock and retail meat.
It provides an important tool for tracking resistance patterns, and for the most part bacteria isolated from beef cattle show low levels of resistance, especially to drugs that are of high or very high importance to human medicine.
However, pressure will continue on all sectors of the livestock industry to reduce antimicrobial use where possible and show good stewardship to this critical tool of human and animal medicine.
Alternatives to antimicrobial drugs have been suggested as one way to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock.
Research funding organizations such as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s Beef Cattle Research Council have provided money for projects that look at antimicrobial alternatives in beef cattle.
Some of the therapies investigated include essential oils, tannins, phenolics, nitric oxide, seaweed extracts, citrus products, prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics.
This ongoing research may help us develop an important alternative to traditional antimicrobials, but to date we still don’t have a product that provides the same level of consistent efficacy against many of the infections we are trying to treat.
Does that mean we have no alternatives to antimicrobial use that work in the beef industry?
In fact, we have a wide variety of other alternatives that have been demonstrated to work through research.
In the beef industry, one of our most common uses for antimicrobial treatment is the occurrence of bovine respiratory disease in the weaned beef calf.
The stress of weaning associated with mixing with other cattle and transportation to the auction yard and feedlot are important factors in developing BRD.
Strategies such as low-stress weaning (fence line or two-stage weaning) may reduce an important stressor that plays a role in the development of BRD.
Preconditioning and prevaccination programs have been shown to significantly reduce respiratory disease in weaned calves by separating the stress of weaning from the introduction to the feedlot and through the use of proper vaccination before entry to the feedlot.
Low stress animal handling and transportation, direct marketing to feedlots and other tools have been shown to also be effective in commercial and research settings.
We may still have to treat some sick cattle, but antimicrobial use could be significantly reduced if the beef industry widely adopted these practices.
The major challenge is to have all sectors of the beef industry work together to find solutions that can be economically advantageous to all involved.
The beef industry in Canada has been a leader in funding research into antimicrobial resistance and has recently developed a national beef antimicrobial research strategy.
Beef producers and veterinarians need to continue to use antimicrobials responsibly:
- Have an accurate diagnosis before using antimicrobials.
- Follow label instructions.
- Monitor cattle health.
- Reduce the use of antimicrobials that are of high and very high importance to human medicine.
John Campbell is head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.