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Be Sure Everybody in Your System Has Their Protocols in Line

Sep 10, 2011

A custom heifer raiser’s recent experience with drug residue problems raises concerns for future marketings – and highlights your dairy's need to address drug handling and administration.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension
I recently ran into a situation that I hope is unusual, but very troubling, that made me think about total systems a little differently. 
A dairy operator called with a question about heifer-raising contracts and what kinds of protocols may be specified in those contracts. The call was prompted because they had been put on the FDA drug residue watch list due to a market heifer’s positive test for illegal residues in the carcass. This is a serious issue for any dairy, but even more so for a large dairy.
The heifer had been on the heifer raiser’s farm for some time and apparently had health issues the custom operator had been treating. The decision was made to no longer deal with the heifer but to market it. Unfortunately, somewhere in the process, the heifer had received a drug that was not properly labeled for dairy or had been improperly administered, so when it went to harvest, the drug residue was found in the carcass. Because the heifer was marketed in the animal owner’s name, they technically became the violator, even though the animal had not been under their care and control at the time of the drug administration. 
One result of this incident is that the dairy will be under extra scrutiny for future cow marketing. There will be extra visits with a veterinarian regarding drug handling and administration, and more attention to the records being kept. On the main dairy milking unit, this will be inconvenient, but the farm already has excellent protocols, controls and systems in place, so risks there are minimal. 
There is great concern, though, for future marketing of heifers from the custom operator. If one heifer left the farm with illegal residues, how many other heifers may have been similarly treated because the withdrawal for this product is quite long. What if more of those heifers need to be marketed, or what are the potential impacts if a treated heifer is brought home to the milking herd?
Back to the original phone call – what can the owner do to prevent this kind of incident from being repeated? Most heifer growers probably have a standard contract they use, but there is nothing preventing the animals’ owner from asking for more. In this case, we suggested an addendum that specifies allowable treatments for heifers from this farm. If there are any health situations that cannot be handled with those treatments, the owner’s veterinarian should be consulted to be sure all treatment protocols are consistent with those on the dairy. 
The heifer grower will be asked to keep and provide detailed treatment records for all animals from this dairy so the dairy has accurate (hopefully!) information for making decisions on marketing and managing their heifers. 
While this situation was compounded by heifers being on a different farm, under different daily management, the same thing could potentially happen with your heifers right at home if you aren’t careful. 
Your first step is to maintain a full veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR). Consult your veterinarian regularly on health management and be sure to follow all instructions carefully. Sometimes farms, in an effort to save money, shortcut that relationship by treating animals with are over the counter (OTC) products that may not be the proper or best treatment for the problem. We also occasionally hear of prescriptions being requested without a vet seeing the animal. These can be among those situations leading to residues. 
Your vet is trained to recognize diseases, know the proper treatments and advise on withdrawal periods when drugs do need to be used. The vet is also able to advise you on proper treatment amounts to safely be administered. Overdosing the proper product can also result in residues, so proper rates are essential.
Be sure to administer all products properly. I recently read of a case where a product labeled for subcutaneous injection ended up being inadvertently injected into muscle tissue because an animal was inadequately restrained. The animal tested positive for drug residue even though a proper product and amount had been used.
The other essential step is accurate and complete record keeping. Safe food production demands accurate handling of all pharmaceuticals. Read all labels and follow directions exactly. The formulation of a product might have changed from the last time you used it, so the amount to administer may have changed as well. Carefully mark any treated animals and keep handy records of treatments to avoid marketing meat or milk from any treated animal before its safe time. Be sure everyone on the farm understands the marking system.
You are producers of quality meat and milk. You are also the first line of defense in making sure those products are safe. Don’t shirk your responsibility.
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