Times have changed in animal agriculture. Gone are the days when producers and their veterinarians worked in relative isolation, and consumers were content in their perceptions of how food animals were raised. Today we live in an age of skepticism, reinforced by real-time communication of information and, often, misinformation.

Veterinarians are on the front lines in protecting the reputations of their clients and the image of the industry. Their charges include guiding their clients and employees in consistently using acceptable practices, documenting those practices, and demonstrating dedication to producing food that meets or exceeds public expectations for safety, animal welfare and environmental stewardship while also keeping the business viable.

To offer some insights on the veterinarian’s changing roles in tackling consumer issues, we asked several prominent veterinarians to address questions on the topic.

Veterinarians who provided input on these questions are:

·         Fred Gingrich, DVM, Country Roads Veterinary Services, Ashland, Ohio

·         Dan Goehl, DVM, Canton Veterinary Clinic, Canton, Mo.

·         Dee Griffin, DVM, MS, Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, Clay Center, Neb.

·         Guy Jodarski, DVM, supervising veterinarian, CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley (with input from his colleague Jen Burton, DVM)

·         Del Miles, DVM, MS, Veterinary Research & Consulting Services, LLC, Greeley, Colo.

·         Dale Moore, DVM, PhD, Washington State University

·         Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University

 

Following are the first two questions and selected answers. A follow-up article in the next issue will address two more related questions. To avoid repetition, some similar answers from multiple sources are not included.

In terms of consumer perceptions, what trends do you expect will most affect your clients’ operations over the next five years?

Dale Moore: I don’t think there is any doubt that “animal welfare,” humane treatment and pain management will continue to attract consumers’ attention and affect dairy and beef operations. But what also continues to creep into the conversation is the idea of “sustainable agriculture,” which means different things to different people.

The other “elephant in the room” is antimicrobial use and issues of both residues and resistance. If you look at how well the dairy industry responded to issues of residues in milk over the last 20 years, it is really phenomenal. Beef did the same thing for meat residues. But we still hear the conversation about residues and the conversation about antimicrobial resistance is getting louder.

 Fred Gingrich: Animal welfare will be a key issue, including how we raise animals and particularly lameness problems, along with drug use, residues and antibiotic resistance.

Dee Griffin: Welfare will be the operative word and the welfare issue that will receive the most consumer attention will be “living space,” including housing issues such as muddy conditions and providing shade. Pain mitigation, including use of local anesthetic and pain-relieving medications, also will be a key issue. We also have real potential to reduce the high sickness and death loss in 50 percent of cattle in the United States that have no health management before weaning. Lastly, hot-iron branding likely will come under pressure.

Dan Thomson: People want to know exactly where their food is coming from and how it was produced, meaning more traceability. Food safety will still be front and center. We’ll see continued pressure and concern over steroid implants and other metabolic modifiers used in beef production. The issue really is about fighting off activists who don’t want us to eat meat but disguise their ploy with other issues.

Del Miles: In addition to animal welfare, and antibiotic and implant use, environmental issues will be critical, particularly dust from livestock operations.

Guy Jodarski: The trend of consumers seeking more information about specific practices of animal care on livestock farms will continue. Consumers will want to “see inside” the industry — to connect through virtual tours, articles, photos or videos posted on traditional or social media and perhaps also to visit livestock operations in person. Unfortunately, even isolated cases of poor animal care or abuse will continue to surface in the media, as the sensationalism of such stories grabs attention.

As the food industry consolidates, the leverage applied by the large retailers, restaurant chains and foodservice companies to impose standards of care and prohibit certain practices will continue to escalate. It’s important we engage these parties as an industry to address their concerns and educate them on our progress. The trend of livestock producers speaking out through various media outlets to communicate the excellent care and good practices they engage in on their farms and ranches should continue.

Dan Goehl: The consumer is inundated with information on animal welfare and antibiotic resistance.  McDonald’s recently announced plans for getting more involved in antibiotic resistance and sustainability. I would not be surprised to see it dictated to us in more detail as to when we can or can’t use antibiotics.  The implementation of these policies is still somewhat unclear, depending on exactly what operations will have to do to “adhere.” 

What are some common weaknesses or opportunities for improvement you see in beef and/or dairy operations with regard to meeting consumer expectations?

Fred Gingrich: Lameness continues to be a very real problem on most dairy farms.  Stalls that are not comfortable to the cow are a major risk factor for lameness.  Consumers have a visceral reaction upon seeing one lame cow.  

Veterinary involvement in drug treatment protocols and residue avoidance is a big opportunity for dairy and beef operations to decrease the risk of a residue and possibly lower drug costs by ensuring the correct drug is being used for the correct disease.

Dee Griffin: The easiest to address ASAP will be to initiate a “real” animal-welfare audit system managed by livestock-producer affiliates and meeting the needs of companies such as Tyson, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s to communicate with consumers.

Responsible antibiotic use is a critical issue, and veterinarians have got to move responsible use and client education up on their priority list. Vets design protocols that affect thousands of cattle, in contrast with MDs who affect patients one treatment decision at a time.  

Veterinarians really need to increase their educational efforts on antibiotic use and work more closely with diagnostic laboratories, including reviewing summary data and their protocols with lab-associated pharmacologists. For instance, the Cmax for CTC fed at the max level is only one-tenth the MIC 90 diagnostics labs reported for over the last decade for targeted BRD organism, and sufas require dosing of 10 to 35 times the label dose for respiratory pathogens. We need to ask “why do we or producers have these in any protocols?” And with pennecillin G and sulfa drugs being the leaders in violative residues for multiple decades, why has the FDA-CVM allowed these to remain over the counter (OTC)?

Dale Moore: Some areas I see for improvement in the dairy industry would be in tightening and getting better compliance with evidence-based protocols for calf and cow treatments to preserve the effectiveness of drugs we need.

Some beef producers have a good idea how their calves perform if they can retain ownership in the feedlot. Others may not know how their calves perform and what quality of beef they are actually producing on the ranch.

Guy Jodarski: We work with organic farms and they are required to graze their cattle. In general, this is very favorable for cow comfort and meeting consumer expectations. There are, however, circumstances when outdoor conditions can be less than ideal. Having good fly control and minimizing heat stress are areas that can be improved on some organic farms. In addition, there are other opportunities to improve animal welfare shared by most cattle operations. These include minimizing pain during dehorning and castration, better stock handling and working to prevent conditions like lameness.

Dan Goehl: Most operations already do a lot of things that outside entities would view as consumer friendly.  The fault at times lies in not promoting and documenting what is being done.  My bias is that smaller operations probably struggle more with documentation than a larger operation with formal standard operating procedures in place. 

Del Miles: Reluctance to be transparent is a challenge.  One of the reasons for the reluctance to be transparent is the lack of objectivity by the press.  If we can have the press objectively report the issues and avoid sensationalism our clients will become more transparent.

In the cattle-feeding industry, we will significantly reduce antibiotic use.  We can control dust with effort.  Animal welfare has improved dramatically but has not been acknowledged by the popular media.  If we get objective reporting, implant use will not be an issue. 

Dan Thomson: We will see tighter regulation of antibiotics. OTC antibiotics will go away, and we will need to learn how to feed cattle without Tylosin in the future. We will have to focus on where we use antibiotics and make changes in the ways we manage diseases such as calf scours and pink eye. Premiums for preconditioning and prevention of respiratory disease will increase, and mass treatment will become less common. We will also have to focus on optimum growth verses maximum growth, finding ways to prevent liver abscess without antibiotics and reassessing fatigue cattle syndrome and heavy out-weights of fat cattle.

On a related topic, I see veterinary sales, pharma-sponsored trips and pharma veterinary rebates for antibiotics as a potential black eye for the beef industry.  Beef producers will want this to go away, but they need to understand that veterinarians will charge more for their services.

In the dairy sector, I think the quality of cull cows and bulls that go to slaughter will be monitored closely. 

On the food-safety side, we will continue to battle E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter.  I think continuing to research to make sure there is no tie between bovine leukosis virus or Johnes disease to human health will be of paramount importance.

Finally, we really need to figure out how to get consumers on the farm.

Part 2 of this series, scheduled for the next issue, will feature the same group of veterinarians addressing two more questions on this theme:

·         What are some key things veterinarians can do to help ensure their clients’ operations live up to public expectations and visibly demonstrate social responsibility?

·         Could you provide examples of how you or other veterinarians have helped a client correct a problem, adopt a new practice or improve transparency?

View this article and others on calcium balance in dairy rations, feeding waste milk to calves, fetal ultrasound, veterinary feed directives and more in the May-June digital edition of Bovine Veterinarian.