Animal Health, Food Safety, and Sustainability

On a ranching operation, animal health is integral to sustainability.  Although this may seem like stating the obvious, the consequence of mistrusted animal health is debilitation of individual operators or of the industry in a particular region or country, as diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”), bovine tuberculosis, and brucellosis, have demonstrated.  Sustainability, however, does not just refer to the literal survival of the herd: as producers, we understand that our relationship with consumers has a heavy impact on the sustainability of the business, and thus food safety is also of concern.  Furthermore, the way that we manage our herd health has a vast impact on the land we operate on, and our strategies for managing health and grazing should be intertwined.  Sustainability, therefore, is the interconnectedness of animal health, range health, and consumer health; but rather than tackle the entirety of this relationship, I am going to focus on clarifying some aspects of animal health that have a direct impact on consumer choices.

In previous entries I introduced the term “preconditioning.”  This fancy word refers to the second round of vaccination shots that calves receive during their first year.  Just as human babies receive multiple doses of particular vaccines throughout their pediatrician-defined vaccination program, calves also receive multiple doses in their first year to prevent diseases such as rhinotracheitis virus, bovine diarrhea, parainfluenza, and respiratory syncytial virus.  Calves typically receive the first round of vaccinations at branding in the spring, their second during preconditioning in the fall, and their third at their location for finishing.  Vaccinating cattle, just like in humans, builds antibodies that help cattle to fight exposure to these various diseases, especially when they are moved to a new location and intermingled with cattle from other operations.  Preconditioning vaccinations, as with any drug administrations, must be administered at least 2-3 weeks before the calves are shipped, which ensures that the vaccine has built up the required antibodies and been dispelled from the animal’s system long before any potential of slaughter.






Vaccination programs are administered in cattle for the same reason that they are administered in humans: to prevent the outbreak of diseases that are infectious and life-threatening.  Preventing disease at the herd-level promotes healthy range calves that can better tolerate stress, particularly when transitioning to a new environment.  Stress can manifest in many forms during a calf’s first year: heat, insects, storms, and daily fluctuation in temperature, are among some of the more common stressors producers battle.  Different stressors require management strategies, but managing grass and reducing animal stress often go hand-in-hand.  Our operation includes a dewormer at branding and an insecticide at preconditioning to minimize stress from insects and parasites (again, at least 2-3 weeks before shipping to prevent persistence in the meat); however, we also work to rotate grazing pastures more frequently, which helps to keep fly colonies from becoming too established in the herd as well as to improve the recovery time for the grass.  Another example of managing herd health and range health occurred during the drought we are facing in Phillips County in 2017:  Animals flocked to water sources in the heat, so in addition to the stress of thermoregulation in 100 F (38 C), animals are also utilizing water sources that are standing and are consequently more susceptible to algal blooms and mineral content that exceeds animal tolerance.  To provide clean drinking water and prevent toxicity to the cattle, Craig and Conni ended up pumping water out of a pit into a tank for our yearling heifers.  Utilizing the tank also preserved the integrity of the water’s edge by minimizing erosion and silting.

Although preventative measures such as vaccines, insecticides, and grazing management are effective tools in managing herd health, at times treatment measures are also required.  To be clear, vaccinations are NOT antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections.  There is increasing concern over antibiotic administration in animals and correlated antimicrobial resistance in humans (for more information visit the Food and Drug Administration Animal & Veterinary page).  From the ranch we sell our calves as “all-natural,” or free of antibiotics and growth hormones.  The “natural” consumer label refers to a product that has not been fundamentally altered (USDA, 2015).  Vaccination programs do not “transmit” microbial resistance to the meat and are safe for consumption.  The “organic livestock” label, in contrast, involves certification to meet all of the requirements outlined in the National Organic Program, the difference primarily being that animals are fed only certified organic feed, and not administered preventative drugs (including dewormers) except vaccines (a USDA Organic fact sheet can be found here).  Both labels specifically allow vaccines but disallow antibiotics.  However, it is also specified that animal health is paramount to achieving the label. Antibiotics are to be administered if approved interventions fail, but the animal or product must not be sold under the “natural” or “organic” label.  As a rule, animals that we doctor with antibiotics are marked and not sold as all-natural at shipping.

To further address the concern of transferred antimicrobial resistance, in 2016 the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) was implemented.  The 2016 legislation increases regulation of feed that contains antibiotics, making the application more specific to affected animals and within particular time frames, and requires veterinarian oversight (Larson & Apley, 2016).  Producers must work closely with their veterinarians when establishing an antibiotic treatment that involves delivery in food or water, and to obtain a VFD when any medicated feed is purchased.  The implementation of VFDs can complicate herd health management for some producers; however, recognizing consumer health concerns and opening communication between entities improves the overall sustainability of the operation and the cattle industry.

We live in an ever-more interconnected and conscious society: being active in the dialogue on herd, range, and consumer health is just one more facet of the diverse roles of the contemporary rancher.

United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (2015, August 10). Meat and poultry labelling terms. Retrieved from

Larson, B. & Apley, M. (2016). New rules concerning antibiotic uses in cattle. Angus Beef Bulletin, 34(4), 32-33.



Anne Johnson, DVM 
The First State Bank of Malta