When Carroll County Farm Bureau members Aaron and Alyce Nieland spot a sick pig on their farm, they’ll do whatever they can to nurse it back to health. That means ensuring the pig has plenty of access to fresh feed and water, space to move around and a clean, comfortable environment. 

But sometimes, pigs, like people, get sick despite farmers’ best efforts to keep them well. That’s when the Nielands call their veterinarian, who they rely on to help them make the best decisions when it comes to herd health.

Sometimes the animal can simply be isolated until it gets better. But other times, the vet needs to prescribe antibiotics to help the pig regain its strength.

"We try not to use antibiotics if we don’t need to, but if we see a hog that doesn’t feel good, we want to help it out a little bit," Alyce said. "We want to make sure that he gets better before he would get into the food chain."

The Nielands’ experience of working closely with their vet on antibiotic use is being repeated all over Iowa, as farmers and veterinarians work under new protocols designed to keep livestock herds healthy and meat safe, while protecting the effectiveness of critical antibiotics for human health.

A key tool for livestock

Antibiotics are a key tool for livestock farmers because, with proper veterinary oversight, they can help keep herds healthy, experts say. The livestock industry has been moving to take steps to ensure limited and judicious use of all antibiotics, not just those that are important for human medicine.

At the same time, consumers have long been protected from antibiotic residues ending up in meat. U.S. farmers must follow a strict withdrawal period before they can send an animal treated with antibiotics to market, noted Peter Davies, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. If a cut of meat tests positive for antibiotic residues above a level deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is not allowed into the food supply, Davies said. Although research has never established a direct link between the use of medically important antibiotics used in raising food animals and antibiotic resistance, farmers and veterinarians are listening to consumers and are cautious in how they use antibiotics to treat livestock, Davies said.

There are separate classes of antibiotics used for treating livestock: livestock-specific antibiotics and antibiotics important to human health, or medically important antibiotics. These are used when livestock-specific antibiotics aren’t effective in treating food animals, according to Michelle Sprague, a swine veterinarian with the Audubon Manning Veterinary Clinic (AMVC) Management Services in Audubon, who works closely with the Nielands.

"The antibiotics we use in livestock typically are not the same that doctors prescribe to their human patients," Sprague said. "If we were to use a human medically important antibiotic in pigs or in livestock of any kind, there are certain criteria that we need to meet before we can legally prescribe those products to the animals."

Medically important antibiotics are used as a "last resort," Sprague said.

Tightening restrictions

Both the USDA and the FDA, with the support of the livestock industry, are tightening restrictions on antibiotic use in meat production.

The new guidance documents mean that livestock farmers will work even closer with their veterinarians to ensure judicious and proper use of antibiotics.

The USDA recently announced two guidance documents, that are designed to restrict the use of medically important antibiotics used in feed and water solely to the treatment, control and prevention of diseases. Under these guidance documents, the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion is no longer allowed.

It’s estimated that 15 percent of the antibiotics sold for use in animals are used for growth promotion, according to the Animal Health Institute.

The guidance documents also eliminate over-the-counter sales of medically important antibiotics used in feed and water. Livestock farmers are no longer able to purchase medically important antibiotics over the counter without a prescription from a veterinarian.

The FDA also amended animal drug regulations to implement the veterinary feed directive (VFD), which regulates the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock feed. Under the directive, livestock farmers who purchase medicated feed from a feed mill or mix their own feed at an on-farm feed mill must have signed documentation permitting the use of medically important antibiotics.

Implementation in 2017

Full implementation, which begins Jan. 1, 2017, expands existing VFD rules to additional medically important antibiotics.

The FDA rules go further, requiring a farmer to prove an established relationship with their veterinarian, called a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).

The VCPR shows that the veterinarian has in-depth knowledge of the farm and can make decisions about treatment with knowledge of how the farm operates.

Under the new rules, a veterinarian must fill out paperwork or an electronic form indicating which antibiotic is to be used in the feed, the duration of use and when the directive is to expire. The veterinarian, farmer and feed mill are required to keep the paperwork for two years and provide a copy of the VFD upon inspection.

Greater collaboration

Besides additional paperwork required for the use of medically important antibiotics, the amended VFD rule shouldn’t have a negative impact on the livestock or feed industries, said Chris Rademacher, extension swine veterinarian at Iowa State University. If anything, he said, this will create a greater collaboration between farmers, veterinarians and feed mills.

"As long as farmers have a solid relationship with their veterinarian, I don’t think it’s going to change much other than some additional record-keeping and some additional conversations with veterinarians," he said. "At the end of the day, that’s a good thing."

Rademacher says getting a veterinarian involved on the farm not only ensures herd health, it can also help in limiting the use of treatments like antibiotics.

"If you get us early in the process, we can help. Not only just to improve animal health and well-being, but in the process of helping to better judiciously use antibiotics in a more targeted fashion," he said.

For the Nielands, the amended veterinary feed directive won’t change their business.

Whether the conversation of antibiotic use is driven by consumers, the medical health community or the FDA, experts say antibiotic use is an important topic in which to be engaged.

For Alyce Nieland, stewardship of antibiotics are part of her role as a pig farmer and as a mother.

"My number one job is a mom, so I want to have a safe pork chop on the table," she said. "I also want to make sure that if that pig is feeling sick that we get him feeling better before he gets to the food chain."