How to reduce antimicrobial use on cow-calf operations

Every cow-calf producer probably has situations where they use antibiotics unnecessarily, or use the wrong ones for the problems at hand, or use the wrong ones in situations where a lower class antibiotic would get the job done.

Recently, I have been changing the advice I give as the beef industry makes adjustments for how we use antibiotics. Ancillary treatments such as NSAIDs for pain or inflammation are being more commonly used and antimicrobials less.

There are reductions that can be made throughout almost all cow-calf operations. I would suggest any major changes be brought up with or be instituted by your veterinarian. There may in many instances be a savings in antibiotic costs with no negative changes in outcome.

Most antibiotic use in the cow-calf sector is for pneumonia, diarrhea, lameness issues, navel infection and miscellaneous conditions.

Pneumonia is rarely a problem in our cows. Conditions like degenerative lungs or emphysema, or lungworms may require other treatments but mature cows rarely get the bacterial pneumonia that we call shipping fever, which requires antibiotics.

Lungworms, usually a pasture condition, may require dewormers. For degenerative lung conditions, antihistamines and steroids may be used, but generally these are going to be temporary measures. It might be better to ship cattle, if appropriate.

Preventing pneumonic conditions through use of vaccines, limiting fence line contact or by adopting lower stress weaning techniques is ideal. Any stresses we can reduce at calving such as crowding and keeping calves warm and dry also helps.

Many producers vaccinate for the specific pneumonias they see on young calves. They administer respiratory vaccines at an earlier age and use intranasal vaccines to avoid colostral interference.

It’s always better to prevent disease than treat it.

It’s important to take samples and cultures to determine the type of pneumonia and the antibiotics best suited to treat it.

Producers should take animals’ temperature because active recent infections should have a fever. If the calf shows no fever, it is either not infected or is very far gone and is going through a normal temperature on its way to comatose.

An animal’s temperature can be a good deciding factor for whether or not to treat. Normal temperature is considered 38.5 C to 39.5 C and 39.5 C to 40 C is considered a grey area.

Generally, producer intuition is a good judge when treating based on clinical signs, such as demeanour and alertness, but temperature provides an objective measure to help with the decision.

Scours is usually caused by viruses, so veterinarians will usually say that antibiotics don’t work. However, calf scours at one to three days old could be caused by the E. coli bacteria, which responds to antibiotics.

Scours vaccines have helped to prevent both the E. coli cause and viral causes. A dietary, stress diarrhea or diarrhea caused by protozoa such as cryptosporidium require electrolytes first.

In the case of cryptosporidium, a specific treatment is necessary, not an antibiotic. Diagnosing the proper cause is key.

Lameness caused by foot rot has shown to be very responsive to antibiotics. However, only about 20 percent of lameness issues are foot rot cases.

Broken legs, tendon and ligament injuries, sprains, strains, surgical procedures and casting situations may require painkillers, but these cases seldom require antibiotics.

Cows and bulls may have sole abscesses or other foot problems that must be treated through individualized foot care.

However, if it is true foot rot, it should respond well to antibiotics. If it doesn’t, producers should re-examine the animal because some other problem is likely to blame.

In instances of navel infection, one must weigh the acuteness of the case when deciding whether or not to use antibiotics or if simply draining the abscess is enough.

Metaphylactic antibiotics for things like castration of older calves are being replaced by painkillers.

Treatments for all of these situations should be clarified with your herd veterinarian. They will help with the diagnosis and explain whether antimicrobials are necessary or not.

By using good herd health practices, producers should be able to reduce antimicrobial use. If antimicrobials are necessary, selecting the right drug for the right bug will improve success rates.

Other treatments, such as pain killers, may be more appropriate in many cases.

Changes are happening, but they are for the good of the industry and help improve the safety and quality of the beef.

Producers should embrace the changes and should never start treatments based simply on how it was done in the past. It is a rut we all fall into.

About the author


Stories from our other publications