image Business Week had a good article on the subject of antibiotic use in agricultural animals recently. I love the quote at the end, from a now-reformed farmer who admits for a while, he was “wearing a syringe like a holster”- constantly dosing his pigs with drugs, because he believed it was the right thing to do. Until he was gored and got a nasty infection that wouldn’t heal, due to drug-resistant strains of bacteria that came from his hogs. He ditched the super antibiotic habit, and found that he saved money and didn’t need it like he thought he did.

It really seems to me that this issue is simple, it’s an issue of two extremes. On one hand, you have ranchers who are feeding antibiotics daily, year-round, to all of their animals. Both to increase growth, and also to theoretically ward off disease that could reduce their crop yield. Or, to allow the animals to be more tolerant of being fed poor or inappropriate feed sources that would normally make them sick. And on the other hand, you have some consumers who seem to be demanding no antibiotics, ever, to be used in farming practices. I believe neither extreme is right, that the answer is somewhere in the middle.

In my opinion, antibiotics have their place. Sometimes, livestock get pneumonia, sometimes they get deep injuries that get dirty and infect. They have to heal from necessary management practices like docking, tagging, castrating, and birthing intervention. Sometimes to save a single animal that’s sick and not successfully fighting off illness, you are going to have to give antibiotics, or let it suffer a painful infection and possibly die. And in the history of livestock breeding, we haven’t always selected for robust stock; an historical mistake which many of us are trying to correct in today’s populations, but which takes time to repair. image

I can say for myself that I would never commit to never using antibiotics- not on myself or on my animals. I think that would be trading a small risk for a very large animal welfare transgression, in letting animals suffer or die unnecessarily from a treatable infection. But I have definitely heard of some organic farmers who do just that. They become so rigid in their interpretation of the anti-drug movement that they throw the baby out with the bath water and swear off conventional drugs 100%, even if they are losing animals to very treatable disease!

It is my understanding that even organic producers have a legal clause that gives them the ability to administer medication to a single animal, as long as they have a veterinary note citing that the drugging was necessary for the medical welfare of the animal, and that the withdrawal time to slaughter is sufficient according to label. (I’m not an expert in organic farming, so if someone has a reference to the actual law, please share. This is what a veterinarian explained to me.)

I’m certainly glad to see consumers demanding that farmers quit using routine whole-herd antibiotics, as I share the concerns about what that does to the quality of the meat and other animal products we are eating. Not to mention what a threat it is to all life on earth to be creating super strains of bacteria. But hopefully consumers stay educated on the daily realities of farming, and understand that zero antibiotics is probably not the answer either. Sometimes, hopefully only infrequently, animals need medicine.

We definitely need to put away the “syringe holster” for good. But I’m still keeping a vial of penicillin in my fridge for rare occasions when I feel its needed, because I think it’s the right thing to do for my animals’ health and welfare. Good farming is about being holistic, avoiding extremes, and doing what we know is right for our animals.