Enhance veal cattle welfare while reducing antimicrobial use

Dr. Bart Pardon of Ghent University in Belgium shared insights into antimicrobial use and welfare concerns of veal cattle in Europe and how Canadian veal farmers can enhance welfare while reducing antimicrobial use – two of our major animal care goals in the veal industry. 

While Europe’s overall meat intake is falling, veal consumption remains steady. However, differing societal values dictate how different countries manage their male dairy calves. In the Netherlands, consumption of veal is not strong. This means much is exported to countries with a bigger appetite for veal. In Switzerland, there is little public concern about veal cattle welfare. This is perhaps because Swiss veal cattle are mandated to be housed in groups on straw with access to the outside. This type of housing addresses some of the most common concerns about veal cattle – housing and diet.

Watch the full talk on CCSAW’s YouTube page:  http://bit.do/bartpardon 

Overall, there is still public concern that veal cattle are anemic from all-milk diets and live in small stalls throughout the rearing period. This is no longer the reality, but unfortunately misconceptions still persist worldwide. European regulations prohibit these practices and mandate a basic level of care that most farms surpass by a large margin. Canada has recently moved in this direction by updating the “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Veal Cattle.” Educating the public about what veal farming in the 21st century looks like continues to be of utmost importance in maintaining and growing the demand for veal throughout Europe and North America. 

Dr. Pardon identified reducing antimicrobial use to reduce antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as the “challenge of the decade” for food animal production. For European veal farms, AMR is a real concern, especially when compared with the lower levels of resistance found on dairy cattle farms in Europe. 

Figure 1: Resistance (%) to 0-9 antimicrobial classes among E.coli strains in different production animal species in the Netherlands (1998-2012). Yellow represents no resistance. Note how little resistance is present in dairy cattle compared to veal production.
Source: Maran, 2013

Despite AMR being a relatively minor problem in dairy herds, European dairy producers have adopted practices such as selective intramammary antibiotic treatment at dry off, testing and treating only cows with a high risk of infection. Figure 1 demonstrates antimicrobial resistance of E. coli to different classes of antimicrobial products in four types of livestock production. Yellow bars indicate E. coli wasn’t resistant to any antimicrobials (meaning antibiotics to control the E. coli infection would be effective). The more yellow on this chart, the better! The more classes of antimicrobials E.coli is resistant to, the harder it is to find a product that can treat the E. coli infection.

Other studies have found that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (bacteria that’s resistant to many antibiotics) was present on 88 per cent of veal farms and on 72 per cent of Belgian veal producers! By comparison, the level of MRSA found in the general population is 0.5 per cent. 

Healthy people can be carriers of MRSA and not experience any symptoms. However, people can also contract an active MRSA infection that needs treatment. As we don’t have many effective antibiotics for this infection, MRSA can be life-threatening, especially among vulnerable groups such as the young, elderly, or immune-compromised. 

Finally, Dr. Pardon discussed the direct link between high levels of antimicrobial use and high levels of antimicrobial resistance. Figure 2 demonstrates European countries that used the most antimicrobials were found to have the most resistance. This is clear evidence that overuse of antimicrobials creates resistance, and that judicious use is the best approach for ensuring antimicrobials remain effective. 

How can we improve?

  1. Reduce disease to reduce antimicrobial use:
    1. Purchase healthy calves
    2. Target treatments to sick cattle
    3. Prevent environmental risk factors
  2. Monitor and benchmark:
    1. Drug use
    2. Health
    3. Morbidity (sickness)
    4. Mortality
    5. Welfare

Purchase healthy calves

“Most disease is bought and paid for” rings especially true in the veal industry. Even if a dairy farm has a relatively low level of a specific pathogen, you will eventually purchase a sick calf if you are a regular customer. Having a clear calf purchasing protocol, as required in the “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Veal Cattle,” can help reduce the risk of buying sick calves.

Calf purchasing protocols should include guidelines on:

  • Age
  • Weight 
  • Passive transfer status
  • Vaccine status
  • Source farm morbidity/mortality rate
  • Source farm infectious disease status

Also list signs of health and sickness in the protocol. See Veal Farmers of Ontario’s “Calf management: detecting calf disease early” and “Assessing calf health” resources at www.ontarioveal.on.ca for details. 

Farms that did not perform a clinical exam of calves on arrival to the veal farm later had a higher level of antimicrobial use. Clinical exams before purchasing prevent buying sick calves, while exams on arrival to the veal facility allows sick calves to be identified, quarantined, and treated without spreading disease.  

Monitor and benchmark 

Little progress can be made if we aren’t monitoring where we are, watching trends, and setting new goals as each is reached. 

By simply asking farmers to monitor their antibiotic use and encouraging a reduction in use, Belgium saw a 46.1 per cent decrease in antimicrobial use, with a 70 per cent decrease in medically important (for human use) antimicrobials. Through this reduction, producers discovered that blanket treatment wasn’t all that effective – products that weren’t targeted to a farm’s specific pathogens didn’t reduce sickness or death. Blanket treatment wasn’t improving cattle health and welfare, but was reducing profitability and increasing AMR. If you are interested in starting an antimicrobial benchmarking project to reduce antimicrobial use and resistance on your farm, contact Kendra Keels at the VFO office to get started. 

By simply asking farmers to monitor their antibiotic use and encouraging a reduction in use, Belgium saw a 46.1 per cent decrease in antimicrobial use, with a 70 per cent decrease in medically important (for human use) antimicrobials. Through this reduction, producers discovered that blanket treatment wasn’t all that effective – products that weren’t targeted to a farm’s specific pathogens didn’t reduce sickness or death. Blanket treatment wasn’t improving cattle health and welfare, but was reducing profitability and increasing AMR. If you are interested in starting an antimicrobial benchmarking project to reduce antimicrobial use and resistance on your farm, contact Kendra Keels at the VFO office to get started. 

Summary

Rather than looking at reducing antimicrobial use as a regulatory challenge that increases the difficulty of raising veal in a profitable way, Dr. Pardon challenges producers to consider the reduction in antibiotic as momentum to improve welfare, “Systems that can’t produce without antimicrobials will need to be rethought or abandoned,” he said. Management changes can reduce disease, improving welfare and reducing sickness without antimicrobials. This is the “treatment” of the future. “Why should we, as an industry, react when we could act,” he noted. To prevent sickness in the first place is better for cattle and the producer. 

Bart Pardon DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ECBHM is a European Veterinary Specialist in Bovine Health Management from the Department of Large Animal Internal Medicine, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, at Ghent University in Belgium. Dr. Pardon spoke to Veal Farmers of Ontario’s Board of Directors as well as presented to students, faculty, and members of the public with an interest in animal health and welfare at the University of Guelph Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) in November 2017.