THOMPSON, N.D. - Another cow in the long line tromps into the portable metal chute. Veterinarian Paul Motter grabs her tail, firmly but respectfully, with one hand and sticks his other plastic-gloved hand inside her.
Motter - manure on his rubber overalls - probes for a few seconds before calling out, “Yes,” signifying that she’s pregnant. Assistant Sheila Johnson nods and marks the cow accordingly. Because the cow should bear a calf in the spring, her owner now knows she’s worth the effort and expense of feeding over winter.
Pregnancy test completed, Motter and Johnson vaccinate the cow and pour on insecticide to protect her from lice. They release her from the chute, and the next cow in the line rumbles forward on this windy fall morning.
Later, taking a short break to talk with visitors, Motter smiles when asked if the work is tiring. “A guy does get in shape, somewhat,” he says. “And I enjoy working with animals. I feel like I’m helping the people (their owners).”
But his job soon will be a little more complicated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Feed Directive, which is being phased in and will be fully implemented in December 2016, will affect how and when “medically important” antibiotics are used.
The drugs will remain available to treat, control and prevent medical problems in livestock, but will require greater oversight from Motter and other vets. The most important change is that livestock producers will need authorization from a licensed vet to use the antibiotics through what’s known as “veterinary-client-
patient relationship,” or, more simply, “veterinary-client relationship.”
That relationship “probably is something most people haven’t thought about, unless they need antibiotics (for their animals),” Motter says.
Motter, who owns and operates the Cooperstown (N.D.) Veterinary Clinic, says he and most - but not all - livestock producers with whom he works have such a relationship.
“In most cases, we’ll be fine,” he says. “But sometimes we don’t have it. We may be familiar with one aspect of the operation, but not the aspect they need it for.”
Large livestock operations, which usually have frequent and regular contact with vets, are more likely than small ones to have the necessary relationship, industry officials say.
For instance, Mark Malacek, a feedlot operator in Redwood Falls, Minn., says he has close ties with his vet and doesn’t anticipate problems.
Nor does he expect problems with overall implementation of the FDA directive.
“It’s going to work out just fine, I think,” he says, noting FDA is tightening control of antibiotics, not forbidding their use.
Cattle feeders are responsible “and know they have to follow the rules,” he says. “We use these products as they’re meant to be used.”
He also says, “If they (consumers) are going to the grocery store to buy beef from a producer like myself, they’re getting a safe, safe product.”
Restrictions on antibiotic use for production are likely to have only “small effects of prices and quantities” of U.S. meat, according to a just-
released study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
The veterinarian-client relationship isn’t the only concern that Motter has with the feed directive. He’s also uneasy about its stricter emphasis on antibiotic labeling.
“It will be illegal to use it (the antibiotic) for anything other than what’s on the label,” he says.
For instance, an antibiotic approved for two weeks of use can’t be used for less than or more than two weeks. And an antibiotic approved for, say, foot rot can be used only for that, he says.
But despite the concerns and uncertainty, Motter is optimistic the new directive will prove workable.
Trade and farm groups, as well as state extension services, are holding workshops and training sessions on the directive, and industry officials say the events will help to implement it successfully.
In any case, the directive already is drawing more attention to antibiotic use in livestock and also to veterinarians’ responsibilities to animals, animal owners and consumers.
Six decades of use
FDA first approved using antibiotics in farm animals in 1951. Approval was based on research showing cattle, pigs and livestock put on extra weight when their feed included antibiotics; livestock officials say now that using medication in feed is an effective, convenient way to prevent some types of diseases in livestock.
But critics have long maintained that using antibiotics for animal health is risky. In 1969, a committee of U.S. government experts concluded that it contributes to antibiotics’ resistance in humans.
The issue has been hotly debated since then. Various regulations have been placed on the use of antibiotics in livestock in both the U.S. and Europe.
Some food companies have responded, too. For instance, sandwich chain Subway recently announced it will begin serving antibiotic-free chicken and turkey in the U.S. next year, and within the next nine years will stop selling any meat from animals given antibiotics.
Several competitors, including McDonald’s, announced similar changes, previously.
The FDA, for its part, says on its website that it’s “taking action to promote the judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food animals” and the new feed directive is an “important part” of that effort.
Motter, from his perspective as a vet on the front lines, attributes concern about antibiotics to “a lot of outside influences. I don’t think there’s any proven association (with danger to human health) with antibiotics in cattle that we’re using.”
“Concerns about antibiotic resistance in people - I think a lot of it is theory,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has proof we cause harm to humans. At the same time, I think it (the FDA directive) is acting out of an abundance of caution.”
Motter says the livestock industry is “fortunate to have them (antibiotics) available. A lot of animals have died for lack of effective treatments. To me, treating an animal that needs it makes for a safer food supply.”
Not everyone in agriculture agrees that using antibiotics to treat animals is a good thing.
Will Winter, a Minneapolis-based veterinarian, is a fierce critic.
“They’re crutches,” he says of antibiotics. “Once people got antibiotics, they let down their guard. They got amnesia. They quit doing the things that keep their animals healthy.”
Winter, who sold his vet practice in 1999, now concentrates on lecturing, writing and consulting on holistic veterinary livestock issues, sustainable agriculture and traditional nutrition. He founded the American Holistic Livestock Association.
Antibiotics keep weak animals alive and they pass along their weakness to their offspring, eventually hurting the entire herd and making it more susceptible to disease, he says.
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see we’re on an unsustainable path,” he says. “We have superbugs now, just like glyphosate resistance in weeds.”
He also says animals that aren’t treated with antibiotics are healthier, happier and more nutritious for humans to eat.
The FDA directive is a much-needed step in the right direction, and farsighted livestock producers willing to change will begin looking for alternatives to antibiotics, he says.
“Don’t wait,” Winter says. “Start now to build up the the immune systems of your animals.”
Veterinarians must weigh the needs of animals, animal owners and consumers, says Gerald Stokka, livestock stewardship specialist with the North Dakota University extension service.
“It’s something we’re always dealing with,” a balancing act complicated by the new FDA directive - and one with no easy answers, he says.
Stokka has an unusually varied perspective. He’s been a rural vet, a university professor and a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations team, and has talked with ranchers, consumers and livestock industry officials around the world.
Motter, for his part, understands the balancing act. He says he addresses it on a case-by-case basis.
He also says he’s careful with antibiotics and prescribes them only when he considers them appropriate.
On the front lines
Motter, who grew up on a diversified family farm in Hope, N.D., has spent his life working with animals.
“We were probably pretty typical of farms in those days. We had a little bit of everything,” including several kinds of animals, he says. “I gravitated more toward livestock than farming.”
He attended North Dakota State University and then Iowa State University, where he earned his veterinary degree.
“It (becoming a vet) is pretty similar to being an MD - maybe not quite as much (education and training,” he says. “Generally, you need seven to eight years of school.”
He worked first as a vet in Harvey, N.D., before a position opened up at the Cooperstown Veterinary Clinic, which he now leads. His family utilized the clinic’s services when he was a boy, and several family members use it now for their animals.
The Cooperstown clinic, which has three vets, devotes a little more than half its practice to cattle. Dogs, cats and horses account for most of the rest.
Motter works mainly with cattle, though he helps with other animals, when needed.
He began as a clinic employee and, over time, bought an ownership stake when its older veterinarian-owners retired.
Friends and clients
As Motter gets older, he increasingly enjoys the relationships with livestock producers that build up over time.
“I feel like I’m working with my friends,” he says.
And he’s pleased that cattle prices reached record highs last year. They’ve dropped since then, but remain relatively strong.
Better prices are “long overdue. Many years (profit) margins were tight, even negative,” he says. “It’s gratifying to see people getting paid for their efforts. It’s gratifying to see them have new equipment and facilities and being able to invest back into their operation.”
Now, Motter wants to make sure livestock producers understand the FDA directive’s emphasis on the veterinarian-client relationship.
“Not everybody is aware this is coming,” he says. “You need to get prepared for this. You don’t want to be in the position where you don’t have that relationship and your vet isn’t able to help you.”
“Make sure you get that relationship established now.”