Consumer perceptions, retailers and legislation are changing the way livestock are raised in the U.S. Panera Bread and Chipotle have been marketing antibiotic-free meat for some time, and McDonald’s will soon join their ranks. Tyson Foods is also moving towards antibiotic-free.
With the Veterinary Feed Directive set to begin implementation in October and take full effect at the end of 2016, producers will need to take additional steps while feeding medications. To say the least, raising and feeding livestock have been evolving at a rapid pace.
At Alltech’s Rebelation meeting this summer, speakers discussed the possibilities of going antibiotic-free and what livestock producers are currently doing.
For pork producer and processor Clemens Family Corporation, requests come in every day from food service and retailers wanting hogs raised without antibiotics, says Doug Clemens, company CEO.
Approximately 15,000 pigs are processed per week by Clemens Family Corporation, and a third of those hogs qualify in the “never-ever”program. “Never-ever” means the animal has never had growth promotants, been fed byproducts or treated with antibiotics.
“From our perspective, we have not taken the pathway of giving consumers what they want,” Clemens says.
Instead, the company looks at doing things differently than in the past, he says, while keeping animal welfare top of mind.
“We’ve been able to achieve that by constantly learning, seeking questions and doing what we think is best for the animal,” Clemens adds.
It is absolutely possible to go antibiotic-free, says Steve Collett, clinical associate professor at University of Georgia’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center. A majority of the turkey industry has managed to go completely drug-free in the past decade, he says, meaning no antibiotics, growth promoters, coccidiostats, chemicals or treatment.
“In terms of the future, I think it is clear millennials are going to take us down the track of removing antibiotics,” Collett says.
Fieldale Farms, a chicken supplier for Chipotle and Panera Bread, has been raising birds antibiotic-
free for nearly 18 years.
Occasionally, a flock must be treated, says Dave Wicker, vice president of live operations at Fieldale Farms. During the first few years switching to antibiotic-free, he says you’ll treat a lot of animals, but as you learn there will be less need for treatment.
“I would say if you want to do antibiotic-free production, you better have extremely good feed quality and consistency,” Wicker says. “Going antibiotic-free is doable; it is not easy. The biggest thing is changing your mindset.”
Raising cattle without antibiotics might be the most challenging of the major livestock species. Poultry and pork production utilize more vertical integration, so all health protocols are easier to manage because the livestock don’t change hands as often or travel as far.
In beef production, a calf could be born at a ranch in Florida, backgrounded in Kentucky and sent to Oklahoma to winter on wheat. Then it could end up at a feedyard in Texas where it might be neighbors with Holstein steers from California and spayed heifers from Mexico.
John Butler serves as CEO for Beef Marketing Group, which has 19 member feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska. So far, the group has not gone antibiotic-free, but they know changes are on the horizon.
“It will be very difficult for the beef industry,” Butler says of going antibiotic-free. “We’re not ignoring the signals we’re getting from many of the end users we work with.”
Each week, 13,000 cattle are sent to a single packer by the Beef Marketing Group. McDonald’s, Walmart and Whole Foods are some of the retailers purchasing beef from the packer.
“What we try to do is identify what we can do on the live-side to address those needs,” Butler says. “We’ve been looking aggressively at alternatives because we know it [antibiotic-free] is coming.”
Antibiotic-Free Can Be Done
Beef producers can go antibiotic-free, and some consumers are willing to pay for it.
Feedlot owner and operator Dale Moore says 95% of the cattle he feeds go into a “never-ever” all-natural program, where they haven’t received antibiotic treatment or a growth hormone. He shared his experience feeding cattle at Cattleman’s Choice Feedyard near Gage, Okla., during Alltech’s Rebelation conference this summer.
“The way our program works is everything that comes into the yard starts off as an all-natural animal,” Moore says.
Cattle that do become sick receive treatment and will enter a conventional market or a non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC) program.
Despite not using feed grade antibiotics, Moore has been able to operate at death loss rate of 0.04% with virtually no re-pulls for sick cattle. He notes the use of hormones would be beneficial to adding weight to calves, but it doesn’t make up for the quality premiums the cattle have been receiving.
Out of Moore’s own cow herd, 70 calves were harvested in mid-May with 28% yielding Prime, 62% yielded Choice, and only 10% were Yield Grade 4. Those calves paid $343.49 per head in premiums over the cash market.
Of the cattle fed at the 7,500-head capacity lot, Moore says his own calves are just average compared to what his customers bring in. He attributes their success to having the perfect combination of quality cattle genetics and good people to work with.
“Fortunately, we’ve been blessed to have the right cattle and right customers to be able to do this pretty consistently,” Moore says.
Cattle from the feedyard that went to U.S. Premium Beef (USPB) in the fourth quarter of 2014 graded 52.66% Prime. The top 25% of USPB cattle were paid $81 per head premium, while Cattlemen’s Choice calves brought $160.27.
However, those premiums don’t mean a lot when calves become ill. In 2005, every sick animal cost Moore an additional $100 per head for treatment costs, added days on feed, etc. Now, that same calf would cost $350 per head.
Using antibiotics isn’t an everyday occurrence at Cattlemen’s Choice, but it is a tool that is still needed. With the current pushback by retailers on antibiotic use, Moore thinks it will not be a good situation.
“Whenever they flip that switch and say ‘no more antibiotics,’ I think it will be detrimental to the industry,” Moore says. “But even worse, I think it will be detrimental to the cattle because, like a kid, every once in a while, they need to go to the hospital.”