October 29th, 2013 – AgChat on Family Farm vs Big Ag

AgChat on Family Farm vs Big AgCan Big Ag also be Family Farm? Media use of the term Big Ag is generally used to set a tone of big is bad and must be stopped. Family farms are viewed as homey, warm, and very American. What is the difference between family farms and big ag? How can the two views be correct and yet different?
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Let’s Talk About Antibiotics and Organic Animal Care

The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic, and for good reason. These are profoundly useful Rob Wallbridge-TheFanningMill.com medicinal substances, both for human and animal health – no one can deny that. But overuse of these drugs, again in both the human and animal context, may lead to serious negative consequences. Informed, respectful conversations about the use of antibiotics in agriculture can help both farmers and consumers understand and address these concerns.

One of the distinguishing features of organic livestock production standards is a prohibition on the use of antibiotics in animals used to produce organic food. I have spent over 10 years working with new and established organic dairy producers in Canada, and I have been part of a lot of discussions, both within the organic sector and across the wider agricultural community, about organic animal health and welfare as it pertains to the use of antibiotics. Most of these conversations boil down to a few key ideas:

  1. ALL farmers, no matter their method of production, care deeply for the health and well-being of their animals. No farmer, big or small, organic or conventional, wants to see an animal under their care suffer needlessly, and they will use all the tools available to help. Organic standards in both the U.S. and Canada actually state this explicitly: “The producer of an organic livestock operation must not…withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.” Animals that are treated with antibiotics on an organic farm must be clearly identified and sold separately into the non-organic market. (This is true for meat animals in both the U.S. and Canada; in the U.S., antibiotic-treated dairy cows must be sold off the farm, but since 2008 in Canada, they are allowed to start producing organic milk again after a 30-day withholding period.)
  2. Antibiotics are not a cure-all. This is an important point on at least two levels: firstly, much of the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is linked to people who demand a prescription to treat illnesses (like the common cold) that are more likely caused by viruses, which antibiotics cannot treat. Secondly, farmers who treat an animal with antibiotics and observe improvement or recovery may mistakenly assume that the antibiotic treatment is the only thing that worked, and that not treating that animal would have resulted in a worsening of the condition. In fact, it’s quite possible that the animal would have recovered either way. This false assumption can lead to an overestimation of the effectiveness of antibiotics and of the negative effect of managing without them.
  3. Effective alternatives to antibiotics exist. Farmers who choose to use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary soon discover that they have a number of other tools available to them. Not all of them are as easy, well-known, and convenient to use as antibiotics, but they can be equally effective, especially if used as part of an integrated approach. Some of these products are natural anti-microbials, like garlic tinctures, essential oils, or other botanicals. Others are aimed at strengthening and enhancing the immune response of the animal: these can include vitamins, minerals, colostral whey products, probiotics, plant extracts, and other nutritional supplements. Thanks to the rapid growth in the organic livestock sector (and dairy in particular) there are now practitioners and companies devoted to meeting the health care needs of organic livestock.
  4. Good management matters most. Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that when it comes to caring for livestock, the differences in methods of production are relatively minor compared to the commonalities. The keys to animal health and welfare, regardless of the type of farm, are nutritious food, good water, fresh air, clean housing, and proper exercise (which, come to think of it, is also a good prescription for human health!). In fact, research conducted on organic and conventional dairy herds in Washington, Oregon, and New York State demonstrated very few significant differences in milk quality and herd health indicators – meaning that organic farmers are able to effectively manage their herds without antibiotics. For those interested, this same research demonstrated the variety of tools available to organic farmers. Rather than get caught up in debates over the use of one medicine, we should focus on the fact that well-managed farms have fewer sick animals, regardless of scale or methods of production.

At the end of the day, farmers who take a conscious, careful, informed approach to livestock health and welfare on their farms can provide top-quality care to their animals, regardless of which set of tools they choose to use. Good stewardship of antibiotics is very important to all farmers, for the health and welfare of both their animals and their families.  Sharing the knowledge and experience of what works on our farms will benefit the agricultural community and society as a whole.

This post is portion of a three-part series on talking about antibiotics. We began the series discussing ways farmers and ranchers need to talk about antibiotics while being respectful to all aspects of agriculture. We followed that post with a veterinarian’s viewpoint from Dr. Jen Trout. We are dedicated to providing views from all segments of agriculture and close the series with a look from the organic sector. 


Rob Wallbridge-www.TheFanningMill.comRob Wallbridge grew up on dairy and cash crop farms in Eastern Ontario, Canada. He currently operates Songberry Organic Farm in Bristol, Quebec with his wife and two young children, producing vegetables for market and raising livestock for personal consumption. Rob is a trained organic certification inspector, a graduate of the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, and a past board member of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. He volunteers on the Livestock Working Group of the Canadian General Standards Board Organic Technical Committee and consults on organic production and certification, including over 10 years with the organic dairy farmers of the Organic Meadow Co-operative. Follow him on Twitter @songberryfarm or visit his blog at www.thefanningmill.com

AgChat Foundation Announces 2014 Northwest Regional Agvocacy Conference

Join us for a one-of-a-kind experience in gorgeous downtown Portland, OR, January 30-31, 2014. This conference will tout a special AgChat Foundation's 2014 Northwest Regional Agovcacy Conferenceelement no other Agvocacy conference has seen, providing our attendees with the opportunity to explore food-focused businesses and connect with key food influencers.

You can also expect to learn how to identify your social media ‘voice,’ effectively reaching out to your audience, understanding essential components of the blogging process and looking at social analytics to determine what the numbers mean.

The conference will be held at the beautiful, downtown Crowne Plaza, an ideal home base for exploring the city’s cultural aspects with breathtaking views.

Tickets for the event are $100 for farmers and ranchers; $150 for agri-business professionals, AgEducators, etc… For additional information including registration and hotel accommodations, please visit our Eventbrite page.

Antibiotics and Animal Welfare – Talking Points from A Veterinarian’s Perspective

“Above all else, do no harm,” this is the veterinary oath in a nutshell, the 6 words that all veterinarians believe Chickensin and abide by. As a large animal vet, I take this creed to heart when it comes to dealing with livestock. “What exactly does that mean,” you may ask. I believe it covers all facets of an animal’s well-being. Humanity in animal agriculture casts a wide net: housing, nutrition, management, care, prevention and treatment of disease, and when necessary, euthanasia. Couple my role as vet with my upbringing on a dairy farm and you can understand how important the care of livestock is to me and my family. As is often stated, “it’s not a business, it’s a lifestyle” and I concur whole heartedly. Dairy cows, in my case, are as important to me as my family. And at times, I have spent more time caring and tending to them than my own children (just ask them, the kids that is, they will agree!). So any discussion of antibiotic use in animal agriculture is near and dear.

Healthy animals provide healthy food. Period. There is no argument. Just as I do not forgo medical attention for my children when they are sick. I do not forgo prescribing antibiotic treatment to an animal when it is necessary. Farmers and ranchers need to be proactive in discussing the use of antibiotics in their livestock. Responsible use of antibiotics to prevent and control disease reduces the risk of unhealthy animals entering the food chain. Sick animals are treated based on veterinary diagnosis and prescription.

How are antibiotics used in my world? The Food and Drug Administration’s CVM (Center for Veterinary Medicine) approves drugs for four uses in animal agriculture:

  1. Disease treatment – to treat animals when they are clinically ill
  2. Disease control – to reduce the spread of a specific disease after an animal has been infected
  3. Disease prevention – to prevent disease among animals at high risk of infections
  4. Nutritional efficiency – to promote over-all well being

Producers work with their veterinarian in deciding when an antibiotic needs to be used. The veterinarian diagnoses an infectious disease in an animal and then prescribes the proper antibiotic. Treatment choice is based on the organism causing the infection and its susceptibility to that antibiotic, route of administration, species approval, side effects, and cost. At times, the antibiotic chosen may not be the best antibiotic for the disease, but it is the best of what is approved for that animal. This is due to restrictions placed on the use of antibiotics in animals intended for food.

This differs from human medicine, where physicians can prescribe and use antibiotics without any restrictions determining the best antibiotic, it’s dose and duration of treatment. In food producing animals, antibiotics must be used according to approved label directions or according to federal regulations. Drugs that are available for both human and veterinary medicine are restricted to a specific use, dose and duration, and can only be administered under the supervision of a veterinarian when used in food animals.

Antibiotics are put through the wringer to meet certain requirements before going to market. As they should be! Not only do we need to treat and prevent animal disease, but we must ensure a safe food supply. They must undergo a FDA review process that is more stringent than the approval process for human antibiotics. All products approved by the FDA for food-producing animals must pass significant human and food safety standards. This process helps protect human health, and gives those involved with  livestock the tools needed to keep animals healthy.

“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly dedicate myself and the knowledge I possess to the benefit of society, to the conservation of our livestock resources and to the relief of suffering of animals. I will practice my profession consciously with dignity. The health of my patients, the best interest of their owners, and the welfare of my fellow man, will be my primary consideration. I will, at all times, be humane and temper pain with anesthesia where indicated. I will not use my knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity, nor in contravention to the ethical code of my profession. I will uphold and strive to advance the honor and noble traditions of the veterinary profession. These pledges I make freely in the eyes of God and upon my honor.”

This is the veterinary oath I took. This is the code I follow, this is the code I instill in my clients to follow. Those of us in animal agriculture take our job, our lifestyle, our passion seriously because ultimately we are feeding the world.

written by Jen Trout, DVM

This post is part two of our series on the issue of antibiotics and how we can respectfully discuss the issue when talking about other segments of agriculture. The first in the series was “Do You Have A Tough Time Talking About Antibiotics?” We closed the series with the guest perspective of Organic farmer Rob Wallbridge as he discusses “Let’s Talk About Antibiotics and Organics Animal Care.”


Jen Trout, DVM - Antibiotics and Animal Welfare - Talking Points From A Veterinarian's PerspectiveJen was raised on a registered Holstein farm in Forest Hill, Maryland. After graduating from The Pennsylvania State University with a degree in dairy science, Jen attended the University of Florida for her DVM. Having practiced in California, Texas and Maryland, she has seen the diversity of agriculture across the country. Currently, Jen practices in north Florida, but also consults with dairy producers in other states and provides veterinary technical support to an animal health company. Her passion for agriculture started at a young age, where Jen was actively involved in showing dairy cattle through 4-H and FFA, this passion continues today. 


Do you have a tough time talking about antibiotics?

Regardless of your opinion on antibiotic use, it tends to be a touchy topic to discuss. It is of upmost importance to have the ability to communicate our commitment in providing excellent care of our animals while also producing a safe food supply. This week we are putting antibiotic use in the spotlight to assist farmers and ranchers with creating a game plan for talking about the “A” word.

Our antibiotic coverage began last night as Executive Director, Emily Zweber led a dynamic #AgChat discussion where members of the community were free to get down to the nitty-gritty. The archive of the lively conversation will be posted soon. For now here is a small sample of the questions asked:

  • Q1: Via @KateGriswold : why/why don’t you use antibiotics on your farming operation? #agchat
  • Q8: Could we ever have a farm system that never uses antibiotics? #agchat
  • Q11: Has consumer pressures changed how you use antibiotics on your farm/ranch? #AgChat

These questions served as a starting point to spur a basic conversation about antibiotics. The information gained can now be utilized when those farmers and ranchers are talking about antibiotics with customers. Above all and again, regardless of your opinion, the more you know, the better prepared you are when explaining the different aspects of usage.

As we continue our week-long coverage of antibiotics, helping you be better prepared for those tough questions is our goal. We are thrilled to be featuring two different viewpoints on the subject beginning with Veterinarian Jen Trout, DVM. We will be following that post with the writing of pro-organic and pro-science farmer Rob Wallbridge from TheFanningMill.Wordpress.com. Both of these guest bloggers will share their perspectives and tips about how to talk about the “A” word.

Do you receive questions about antibiotics from you customers? If so, what are their main concerns?

This is the first in a series of blog posts about antibiotics and how farmers and ranchers should be discussing the issue while remaining respectful to all segments of Agriculture. The second part includes a veterinarian’s perspective from guest writer Dr. Jen Trout. We close with a piece which speaks to organics and antibiotic use entitled “Antibiotics and Organic Animal Care.”

written by Jenny Schweigert