Jury out on VFD
DELL RAPIDS, S.D. — Federal rules that expanded the list of medications that need veterinarian oversight to be given to animals have been in place for five months, and animal producers, veterinarians and feed mills continue to move forward on the process.
The Veterinary Feed Directive was put in place as a way to strengthen the oversight of certain antibiotics that are used in both humans and animals and to prolong the life of those products. Beginning Jan. 1, the list of antibiotics that need oversight expanded and now includes many common medicated feeds.
In the VFD process, which is under the purview of the federal Food and Drug Administration, veterinarians must verify they have a "valid client relationship" before supplying medications used in animal feed. Veterinarians must provide documentation in order for feed stores to sell the product, so the changes impact veterinarians with clients who buy medications through online distributors or who buy veterinary supplies through cash-and-carry retailers.
Russ Daly, of South Dakota State University at Brookings, S.D., says the process of creating the documentation hasn't been bad, but some feed mills have complained to veterinarians that farmers haven't been able to do perform some common practices. They have been accustomed to keeping some medications on hand for treatment of pinkeye for pasture cattle or for healing up cows after birth.
Some of those practices may never have caused significant problems for consumers or farmers and were ordinary — though not officially approved — practices that have perceived herd health benefits. Some producers are looking for ways to solve the problems through other approved means, which could be a positive change.
"The big picture reason for doing this is public health — making sure we have antibiotic drugs to treat infections in people when they get sick from bacterial problems and to make sure they work for animals too," Daly says.
Opportunity for best practices
Veterinarian Corale Dorn owns Dells Veterinary Service, at Dell Rapids, S.D. Her husband, Daniel Dorn, is not a veterinarian but manages the practice.
The clinic is just north of Sioux Falls and many of its clients are in the Interstate 29 corridor. It's a mixed practice — everything from dogs and cats to dairy cows and beef cow-calf stocker cattle and feedlots.
Daniel Dorn says one of the problems he sees with the program is the lack of availability of FDA personnel to oversee it. State officials have resisted offering advice because the regulations are federal, he says. He'd like to see more verification that procedures being used by veterinarians are approved, rather than seeing people caught with mistakes later.
Corale Dorn says the VFD gives consumers the confidence that antibiotic use "is under the oversight of somebody who's been through school, understands how antibiotic resistance is created, who understands when we need it, and when we shouldn't be using it as a band-aid."
She doesn't think the VFD should be looked at as just another regulation forced on agriculture.
"It's an opportunity for us to sit down and talk over how we are keeping our cattle healthy in the first place," Corale Dorn says.
The process requires discussion of feed additives, ways to keep cattle healthy and best management practices. Most producers know how to handle feed medications, but the VFD is a way to document it, Corale says.
"Some say, 'I don't feed that much in the first place,' and I respond, 'No, that's the goal, to have healthy cattle that don't need any attention paid to them, just because we're doing our management practices,'" she says.
But when those conditions, including humidity or fluctuating temperatures, come up that require treating large batches of cattle, the medications still are available.
One of the Dorns' clients is Todd Brown of Dell Rapids, who runs a cow-calf operation that finishes their home-raised calves. He joined his father's operation after high school in 1983. He raises corn, soybeans and a little alfalfa for the 100-stock cow herd, which uses the farm's creek pastures.
Brown says the system used to be simple.
"If I needed some (medication) crumbles before, I could just run to town and get them. Now there's kind of an earlier step" with the VFD," he says.
He likes to have crumbles on hand for when the calves are stressed at weaning time or during harvest.
"Those types of situations might make this clumsier; I hope we can get through them. I won't live through that until fall when I wean our next crop of calves."
Brown says cattle producers are good stewards of the land and livestock.
"We treat them (with medications) not because we want to waste the money but to keep them healthy, and that's better in the long run," he said. "It's our duty to keep educating and reassuring the public that we're doing the best we can."
There is reason to be cautious with medications, he says.
"If we overdose or get them immune to it, we rely on some of the same medications to treat kids — humans — and we'd sure hate to translate that into the human food chain," he says.
Anticipation and preparation
Leading up to the Jan. 1, 2017, deadline, there were many concerns about how involved the VFD process would be, how often it would need to be done and how much work it would be to keep track of it — both on the feed mill and producer sides. How veterinarians have accepted the additional duty is a question, Corale Dorn says.
"It comes down to how good your communication is with your clients," she says.
Some feed mill operators initially seemed less aware of the proposed changes than the animal producers themselves, Corale says. Besides keeping the script — a record of the VFD — for two years, the medication distributor is responsible for figuring out how many bags of medication fill a particular prescription — not a typical responsibility of feed mills.
Since that calculation is based on animal weights, the amounts given likely will change during the life of the VFD.
Dells Veterinary Service started doing orientations with an open house last summer. In December 2016, the clinic signed up with a company called GlobalVetLINK out of Ames, Iowa, to manage the VFDs.
Producers with whom the clinic has had historic client relationships were invited to the clinic for 15 to 30 minutes for an orientation of the software. Each was helped with establishing a GVL link so they'd have the VFDs emailed to them. The system allows computerized records storage. The clinic didn't charge extra to those who historically purchased vaccines in the practice.
GVL charges clients $15 to write the script and maintain cloud-based storage for the two-year life of the VFD, Daniel Dorn says. It's a separate invoice item, but the fee could cover up to tens of thousands of dollars of products and keep the producer legal under the VFD rules.
Being in touch
Dells Veterinary completed 100 VFDs in the first two weeks of January and added about 30 since then, Daniel Dorn says.
He says one of the effects was an increase in fall vaccinations and a decline in needs for antibiotic purchases, so that's probably a good sign.
Corale Dorn says it will be an ongoing communication process.
"Every week when we're out preg checking cows, we look over the fence and say, 'How are the feeders doing?' We're already talking about how we would use the VFD. Every vet that is having that same conversation is excited about going out there," she says. "If you don't have that relationship and you have to back up to make sure you have the valid client relationship that comes with part of this, then it's an extra hoop to jump through that makes us have to find 25 hours in a 24-hour day."