Metrics and Antibiotics…

My favorite blonde cowgirl writes an inspirational quote each week on the white board on the office wall. This white board primarily serves as an organizational tool for us at the feed yard listing the upcoming cattle schedule, but over the years my crew has also learned to look to it for Megan’s Weekly Inspirational Message. I love to watch what she comes up with for her weekly mantra – it is an awesome way for me to see my parenting lessons come back through the eyes of my teenage daughter.MetricsMeg.jpg

A couple of weeks ago, Megan shared a quote from Galileo Galilei that voices one of the most important lessons that I have learned running a farm: Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so. I cannot improve what I cannot measure, so metrics provide the basis as I strive to get better each and every day.

Almost five months have passed since I wrote the Subway post that garnered half a million reads in a matter of days. In light of the continuing conversation regarding antibiotic use in food animals, I want to take a moment to share how I continually work to reduce the antibiotic footprint of my farm.

Metrics (a system of measuring) provide the key…

When I first began trying to reduce antibiotic use at the feed yard more than a decade ago, I realized that I needed to understand — the what, the when, the why and the how much – I needed to establish a benchmark set of metrics to determine our current use, and then use those numbers to brainstorm and search for ways to reduce them.

The metrics enabled me to see patterns of use and work to develop new management practices in my search for reduction.  Some of these include:

  • I implemented a holistic system of low stress cattle care.
  • I began tracing my animals from birth to harvest – working directly with the ranchers that provided me with cattle in a system of vertical collaboration. This increased teamwork enabled us to more effectively consult with our veterinarians. Together, we did additional research on vaccine health history in order to make changes that better protect our animals against disease.
  • I consulted with my ruminant nutritionist looking for the best feed combinations to create a nutrient rich and appropriate diet for my animals while also efficiently making use of the feed resources that my favorite farmer grows.
  • My crew and I tenaciously worked toward a daily animal care system that consistently and optimally provides for our animals’ needs.

Metriccalf2.jpgThese sound like simple and easy steps, but the beef chain is so complex that it has taken me most of a decade to create a cross-production system that meaningfully reduces the amount of antibiotics used on my farm. Today, the number of animals that get sick on our farm and have to be treated with an antibiotic is less than half of what it was a decade ago. I reported in the Subway post that my yearly treatment rate for August 2014-July 2015 was 7.8%.

Metrics for the seven months since then show another downward trend from 7.8% to 5.54%. I am especially proud of that trend given the recent environmental stress of winter storm Kayla. We tend to have the highest rate of sickness in the late fall and winter, so I am looking forward to seeing the 12 month number next summer. In addition to lowering the number of sick animals on my farm, our death loss currently sits at only 0.54%.

Looking critically at my farm — the way we source our animals as well as the type and quality of care that we give them — I can continually put the pieces of the puzzle together in modified ways in order to accomplish my ultimate goal.

2014_10_06_mr_Will Feed-3

As notated by the wise words of Galileo Galilei, measuring provides the key to improvement. I love it that Megan has learned the need to quantify in order to improve.   Good cattle care requires both brains and brawn 🙂







Filed under Animal Welfare, Antibiotics, hormones, and other growth promotants..., General

8 responses to “Metrics and Antibiotics…

  1. Bill

    Awesome is as Awesome does.

  2. Kathy Bottrell

    Love that you are working so hard to reduce the use of antibiotics.

  3. Impressive, continue the good work.

  4. B. Buckley

    Very impressive treatment rate Anne, but as you pointed out in your original post, that still leaves 6% of your cattle that will have to be marketed outside of the non-antibiotic group. Cost of identify and ship them separately, any discounts because they represent a small fraction of your herd all because we have people who don’t believe the science when they are told there are no residues to harm them.

    Good luck, keep it up, but we both know, 100% non treated is probably not a reachable target.

    • All good points to think about…Yes, I agree that 100% is not a feasible reality. Animals will, at times, despite great care and good genetics get sick. When that happens, caregivers and their vets need to have antibiotics to use to treat that sickness. That goes along with being a responsible farmer. My longstanding goal has been to get to 5% treatment rate at the feed yard. This year is the closest that we have come, and I am interested in seeing what the next 4-5 months bring as we close out my 12 year period for metrics. I made two changes this year to help get closer to my goal: 1. I did not buy a few sets of calves that we have had health problems with in the past. The ranchers were not willing to make changes to try and improve so I did not purchase the animals. 2. I made a ration change on my “finish ration” — the ration that the cattle receive for the last part of the feeding period — raising the amount of roughage to a 10% dry matter level.

      It is interesting that you mention the “all natural — never ever treated — market”. We actually do not sell into that market. My ranchers have not been very interested in going that route for many of the reasons that you point out relative to logistics. There is a large increase in cost to produce a “never treated” animal, and many times the end market is not high enough to make back that extra cost. In order to qualify for that market, the animals cannot have been treated for sickness on the ranch (in addition to not being treated at the feed yard) so that creates a necessary audit all of the way back to the ranch of origin. I also philosophically believe in using technology relative to growth and efficiency. We use well managed hormone implants, as well as a beta agonist at the feed yard. I feel that these tools reduce the environmental footprint of my farm in an incredibly effective way, and neither of them are allowed in the “never ever” market. I don’t want to turn my back on this positive technology, so I consequently do not sell into those markets.

      My goal of reduction of human use antibiotics on my farm is a personal one — one that stems from my desire to be a responsible steward and ALWAYS looking for ways to continuously improve. It is driven more from a philosophical standpoint than a fiscal one — although, antibiotics are expensive so reducing use also reduces the cost of raising animals. At the end of the day, it is important to me that I feel as though I am doing the best that I can to take good care of my animals and produce safe and healthy beef. I believe that each and every one of us plays a role in creating an antibiotic footprint, and it is important to me to try and lesson my impact. You are correct that the meat coming from animals that have been treated with an antibiotic is safe — animals are held on the farm after treatment for withdrawal periods to ensure that the meat is free of any unsafe residues — federal law requires this. It is not from a “meat safety” venue that I look at this issue — rather an environmental one. I believe that anytime that we use an antibiotic, there is an environmental impact to it (both in human and animal use) so we should all strive to be good stewards and continuously work to reduce our use. I do this as a human being and a mother, and I also do this as a cattle farmer. When I truly need an antibiotic, I want it to work — therefore, I need to limit my use of it to those times that it is really truly needed. There are things that can be done from an animal management standpoint that allows for significant reduction in antibiotic use in food animals — farmers need to embrace those things in an effort to continuously improve.

      Thanks for the thought provoking comments,

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