Consumer perceptions, retailers and legislation are changing the way livestock are raised in the U.S.
Dining chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle have been marketing antibiotic free meats for some time; McDonald’s will soon join their ranks. Meat packer Tyson Foods is moving towards going antibiotic free. The Veterinary Feed Directive will begin implementation in October and full take effect at the end of 2016 when feed grade medications must be labeled. To say the least, things have been evolving at a rapid pace for the livestock industry.
At Alltech’s Rebelation meeting, luncheon speakers discussed the possibilities of going antibiotic-free and what livestock producers are currently doing.
For pork producer and processor Clemens Family Corporation, the requests keep coming in every day from food service and retailers wanting hogs raised without antibiotics, says company CEO Doug Clemens.
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. The pathway that has been taken looks at doing things differently than in the past, while keeping animal welfare at the 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 antibioti- free, says Steve Collett, clinical associate professor at University of Georgia’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center.
He notes a majority of the turkey industry has managed to go completely drug-free in the past decade, meaning no antibiotics, growth promotors, coccidiostats, chemicals or treatment. Raising broiler chickens is a larger and faster moving industry, so it can be difficult to overcome the lack of coccidiostats.
“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. He relates during the first few years switching to antibiotic-free 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.
“It will be very difficult for the beef industry,” Butler says of going antibiotic-free. “We’re not ignoring the signals that 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. Some of the retailers purchasing beef from the packer include McDonald’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.
“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.”