Livestock Farmers, Are You Ready For Tighter Restrictions on Antibiotics?

Author: Lauren Gwin, Oregon State University Small Farms Program with Laura Sage, Red Bird Acres

Publish Date: Spring 2020

Laura Sage, a pastured poultry and pig farmer in Corvallis, Oregon, is part of a national project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. In February, she went to Washington, D.C., for the annual “Stand Up to Superbugs” event. In this interview with Oregon Small Farm News, she told us what she learned.

Tell us a bit about your farm.

Red Bird Acres was founded in 2013 by Robin and Laura Sage. We consider our farm to be first and foremost mission driven. We believe in the importance of aligning our thoughts and actions: we began farming on the belief that it is necessary for environmental and human health to transition our agricultural system back to being based on small, local economies where promoting human and animal health are at the forefront.

Our current focus is on pastured poultry and pigs. We operate our farm on 85 acres of leased pasture located in Philomath, Oregon.

How do you keep your animals healthy?

We practice farming methods that go beyond organic and take a holistic approach that respects and fosters the health of the land, the animals we care for, and the people who eat our food. Our livestock are raised using high-welfare, low-stress animal husbandry practices. We utilize a pasture-based, rotational grazing system for our animals and are certified Animal Welfare Approved.

Our husbandry methods are an integral component of allowing us to practice antibiotic stewardship. Our animals are raised exclusively on pasture and we use all available techniques to limit stress on them. Animals who have low stress, are able to exhibit all their natural behaviors, and are provided high quality nutrition are less likely to get sick.

How do you use antibiotics on your farm today?

Even with the best husbandry practices in place, occasionally an animal will get sick and might need antibiotic treatment. We never give antibiotics prophylactically, but rather will treat individual sick animals if the situation warrants it. We use antibiotics, both over the counter and prescription under the guidance of our veterinarians. This ensures that we are giving the correct medication at the correct dose and for the correct duration. That is absolutely a critical component of practicing antibiotic stewardship on the farm.

How has your use of antibiotics changed in recent years?

Establishing a relationship with veterinarians familiar with our farm and livestock has enabled us to have access to medications that are oftentimes more effective than the over-the-counter options. It has also given us the ability to access medications that can be supplied in water if the need were to arise (this is very important for poultry producers).

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began implementing the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), starting in 2017, all medically important antibiotics administered through either feed or water came under veterinary oversight.

What did you learn during your recent trip to D.C.? Describe the event.

This February, I participated for the third time in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Stand Up to Superbugs” advocacy event. Stand Up to Superbugs is a diverse group of people from across the U.S. who are working to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria and prevent a return to the pre-antibiotic era when simple infections accounted for at least one-third of all deaths (estimates are that 35,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections).

Stand Up to Superbugs does this by supporting three things: (1) innovation to reinvigorate the pipeline of antibiotics in development, (2) the responsible use of existing antibiotics in veterinary and human medicine, and (3) increased federal funding needed to confront one of the greatest public health threats of our time.

Stand Up to Superbugs ambassadors – and I am one of them – include health care professionals, public health officials, scientists, farmers, veterinarians, superbug survivors, and individuals who have lost loved ones to these infections.

Each year, we Stand Up to Superbugs ambassadors travel to Washington, DC, to meet with our representatives and other policymakers to share their stories and expertise. Outside of DC, ambassadors help raise awareness and advance the fight against superbugs in our own communities.

As an ambassador, I had the opportunity to meet with staffers from both Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden’s office to talk about how Oregon farmers such as myself are working to practice antibiotic stewardship and advocate for continued funding for the government agencies that help us to do this work. That includes Oregon State University, our land grant university, and the important work being done by OSU Extension and the OSU veterinary diagnostic lab, both of which receive federal funding.

What are the new restrictions on using antibiotics in livestock production? Does this include growth-promoting antibiotics in the feed?

Part of the FDA’s Five Year Plan for Supporting Antimicrobial Stewardship is to bring all medically important veterinary antibiotics under veterinary oversight. They began with the VFD (which was implemented in 2017) and will now be expanding to include medically important antimicrobials, such as injectables, that can currently be found on farm store shelves.

This is a very important step when we approach antimicrobial stewardship from the One Health perspective. We must look at any use of antibiotics as a potential to create resistance and that resistance can be found in both our livestock and in human bacterial infections.

What we do on the farm has consequences for our ability to treat human disease and vice versa. If we create resistance to important antimicrobials, over-the-counter access would cease to be of any use, and our ability to treat infections in our animals, ourselves, and families would be lost. Veterinarians, along with diagnostic laboratories, are best equipped with the expertise to advise producers and provide oversight of these critical drugs.

What is your advice for small-scale livestock farmers? How can they prepare for the new restrictions?

My advice is to try to establish a relationship with a veterinarian if they have not done so already. This can be challenging in many rural areas of the state where large animal veterinarians may be in short supply. There are federal programs that help encourage veterinary students to choose a large animal practice, but that program is in need of expansion.

Producers should be aware that these increased restrictions on antibiotics do not mean that anytime an animal gets sick it will need to have a vet out. However, if you have established a relationship with a vet that knows you and your farm, they may be willing to write you prescriptions and provide standing orders should an animal get sick and need treatment.

Reaching out to your local Extension agents is a great way to access advice on how to locate veterinary services. While accessing veterinary services can come at a considerable expense, we have found that in the long run, our farm has increased profitability because of it. We have increased our own knowledge base and have a larger toolbox to pull from. Importantly, we also have the peace of mind that we are doing the absolute best for our animals and the community we serve.

Learn more about the Stand Up to Superbugs project here: research-and-analysis/articles/2019/03/05/stand-upto- superbugs

Learn more about Laura and Robin’s farm, Red Bird Acres, here: