by: Lee Jones, DVM, MS,
University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine

Antimicrobial resistance and antimicrobial use on farms and in all meat production systems are hot news items right now. There is an awful lot of confusion, misinformation and disinformation on the Internet and in the media, too. As Joe Friday used to say "just the facts, ma'am" but it's hard to sort the facts from the fiction. Sort of like sorting sheep and goats, they aren't always obvious at first glance. For more information on antimicrobial resistance see https://www.avma,org/KB/Resources/FAQs/ Pages/ AntimicrobialUse-and-Antimicrobial-Resistance-FAQs.aspx.

As cow-calf producers, we might think that stuff doesn't really affect me on my farm or ranch. In reality, though, that's where it starts. If we want to reduce antimicrobial resistance as an industry, we need to reduce antimicrobial use across the board. Eliminating antibiotic use in farm animals isn't reality. The fact is antibiotics-antimicrobials are useful tools in controlling and treating diseases in animals. The use of these tools is an essential part of good animal husbandry and animal welfare.

Though we all cringe when we see videos of animal cruelty on the Internet, the most common threat to animal welfare is disease. Disease prevention is not only good welfare it is good business. Disease costs the cattle industry billions in lost production, treatment expense and animal death loss.

So what's the cow-calf producer's response?

I was talking to a feed yard expert recently at an NCBA meeting in Denver and he told me, "Lee, if we could just get producers to wean the calves. That would reduce disease by half."

That's the answer? Weaning? Could it really be that simple?

In short the answer is yes, it really is that simple. But how does weaning reduce disease and thereby reduce antimicrobial use?

First, let me explain what I mean by weaning. Weaning isn't just separating calves from their mommas. Instead, it's a weaning process and plan that has several essential steps to ensure the calves don't just survive the process but thrive during the process. Weaning is part of what we refer to as preconditioning, which typically lasts for 30 to 60 days or longer depending on the ranch goals.

We all now know that weaning is stressful. In fact, it is the first stressful step in a series of stressful events for most calves sold in the United States. The typical beef calf, according to the USDA NAHMS data, is separated right off the cow, hasn't been vaccinated or dewormed (and many aren't castrated), delivered to an auction market, commingled with other calves, sold at auction, re-sorted into uniform truckload groups at yet another facility and transported to a processing location. Just like many youngsters get sick the first week of kindergarten, many of these high-risk, lightweight calves will get sick and require antimicrobial treatment.

On a ranch, weaning is an important process to reduce or even eliminate the effects described above. Low-stress stockmanship is part of antimicrobial stewardship. The stress of weaning can be reduced by fence line weaning or two-step weaning. Two-step weaning uses a device that attaches to the calf's nose to keep the calf from nursing but still stays with the cow in the pasture: sort of like a weaning prep. The advocates of this technique point to data that reports reduced bawling and weight loss when the calves are separated from their dams and fewer sick calves following weaning.

Fenceline weaning is simply separating cows and calves using a sturdy fence or electric fence. Cows and calves can graze close by each other but not contact each other during the three to five days they are being weaned. Again, the data shows that this method reduces bawling, weight loss and calf sickness during and following the weaning process compared to abrupt removal and separation of the calf and the cow.

Good nutrition during this process is essential. The calf has been used to a diet of green grass and milk for several months. While the calf can still graze depending on the time of year and pasture conditions, some supplement helps the calf transition to a different diet.

Providing a well-balanced, highly digestible diet including adequate protein and energy (a diet too high in carbs can be as bad as too low) is important to help calves continue to gain weight in the weaning period. This is a good time to introduce calves to feed bunks and water troughs if they aren't already familiar with them.

Vaccination and deworming are definitely part of the weaning program. Hopefully, the bull calves were castrated before four months or 200 lbs. If castrated later, calves are at higher risk of respiratory disease than those castrated younger. Also, calves castrated later can lose significant weight afterwards. If calves haven't received a modified live viral vaccine before weaning, after they are removed from the cow is a good time to convert over to an MLV.

Weaning is a good time to booster the clostridial vaccine (7-way blackleg), too. Other vaccines may depend on the marketing program or past history of the ranch. Oral or injectable anthelmintics are beneficial as well at this time if not done recently. Consult with your veterinarian to design an effective weaning health program.

Shrink is the term used to describe calf weight loss following weaning and/or transportation or any stressful event. The amount of shrink depends on many factors including fill, hydration, availability and quality of feed and water, length of transport, etc. Low stress handling and preparation helps prevent or minimize weight loss in these calves.

Calves that have experienced significant shrink, greater than eight percent, are at higher risk of suffering post-stress disease than calves that don't experience shrink. Initial shrink is usually only fecal and urine loss, but higher amounts likely indicate calf dehydration. Severe shrink can take up to 30 days for a calf to recover at which time the animal won't be performing optimally and is at risk for respiratory disease.

There have been numerous articles on the benefits of preconditioning to calf health and the industry. The same objection is brought up by many calf producers. "I can't get paid to do that." And that's a reasonable complaint. It isn't fair to one segment of the industry to carry the expense of a process while another segment reaps the benefits.

Calf owners that retain ownership all the way through finish know the benefits of a weaning program first hand. Calves that go through a documented weaning and health program are worth more than a calf that is just sold through the sale barn. Getting paid for a good weaning program is feasible, but farmers can't wait until they are ready to sell to identify their market.

Working with a cattle buyer or value-added marketing program ahead of time is worthwhile. Some of these programs require a verification process and some have stipulations on what kind of health products are required. Getting paid for a weaning program will require some research and planning, but premiums are worthwhile.

It's important to keep track of the economics of a weaning program. Knowing your cost of production is critical to getting paid for your efforts and working profitably. Future price weight differences for weaned and feeder cattle will significantly impact the economics of any preconditioning program.

Small producers can reap the benefits of calf weaning, too. There are local marketing groups facilitated by county agents, cattle sales consultants or veterinarians that help small producers combine their calves with other farmers to make a uniform load of like-managed calves. In this way, small producers can reap the benefits of premiums of load lot marketing.

This isn't meant to be critical about any step in the feeder cattle marketing system. However, we need to be honest about the risks to the calf's health involved in every step of the process if we ever want to actually reduce the effects on calf health and subsequent need for antibiotics to control or treat disease. Preparation of the calf has been shown to reduce disease and improve production. It's good for the calf and good for the industry and it's just good stewardship.

Access to antimicrobials is essential to raising livestock. Using proven preventive health management procedures is part of antimicrobial stewardship and shows we care about the public's trust.

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