FORT RECOVERY, OHIO – FORT RECOVERY, Ohio – Few parents would consider giving food laced with antibiotics to a baby.
Then again, most parents aren’t caring for thousands of babies.
It wouldn’t take much for an illness to spread among the 12,000 vulnerable turkey chicks that filled a barn in Mercer County, Ohio, in mid-May. The fluffy, golden chicks, each about 4 days old, clustered under warming lights sharing food and water.
Cooper Farms, in Paulding County, raises 4.5 million turkeys at contract farms like this each year, said Dr. Tim Barman, the company’s director of veterinary services. He prescribes antibiotics in the turkeys’ food or water when an illness threatens to spread.
If you have a disease condition going on, it’s like a snowball rolling down the hill, he said. It gets bigger and bigger unless treated.
Area farmers say they use antibiotics to keep animals healthy. But some health organizations are concerned that antibiotics used to help livestock grow faster could be diminishing the effectiveness of human antibiotics. And the few available statistics do not always differentiate between disease-curing and growth-promoting doses.
More than half of hog farms cited growth promotion as the primary reason they administered drugs to fight bacteria or viruses, according to the 2006 swine survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Monitoring System. About 55 percent of hog farms fed growth-boosting drugs to pigs after they were weaned from their mothers’ milk.
The USDA does not have comparable figures for the use of antibiotics on beef cattle and poultry farms. But a 2002 dairy study found that almost 18 percent of dairy farms fed medications to young cows after they were weaned. And close to 56 percent of young cows were fed milk-replacement formula containing medicine. The study did not separate medications for disease prevention from those to promote growth.
Cooper Farms doesn’t administer antibiotics specifically to help animals grow faster, Barman said. But healthy animals grow faster than sick ones. Growth can be a side benefit to antibiotics use, he said.
The company, which supplies turkey to Bob Evans restaurants and grocery stores, wants to keep animals healthy and protect the food supply, Barman said. Even a secondary infection could spread and sicken other turkeys. And ailments such as salmonella can spread to humans through processed food. Cooper Farms uses antibiotics to combat these diseases.
We don’t use anything we don’t think is important to the health of the bird or food safety, Barman said.
Bob Martin is the former executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Pew Charitable Trusts launched the temporary independent commission, which studied factory farms and advocated strict limits on antibiotics use in livestock.
The commission agreed it was appropriate to use antibiotics to treat or prevent diseases, said Martin, now a senior officer with Pew Environment Group. But he said farmers shouldn’t compensate for crowded conditions and poor manure management with low doses of daily antibiotics.
They’re replacing good husbandry practices by using antibiotics, he said.
Local farmers dispute that. Cooper Farms’ hygiene practices, such as disinfecting barns and company trucks after animals are moved, prevent illnesses, Barman said. Antibiotics are used only to cure or prevent diseases, he said.
Farms administer some antibiotics in food or water. Others are injected.
Liberty Swine Farms decides which method to use based on how many animals need the antibiotics, said Randy Curless, owner of the Wabash County hog farm. He feeds antibiotics to pigs being raised for the meat market at certain life stages when they are likely to fall ill. Pigs being weaned from their mothers’ milk and eating grain for the first time, for instance, receive medicine to prevent diarrhea.
The hogs would become stressed if every animal were given an antibiotic shot, Curless said. Liberty Swine Farms administers antibiotics in food if all of the animals need the medicine. If one pig develops pneumonia symptoms, that single animal receives an antibiotic injection.
You don’t want to feed 1,000 pigs (antibiotics) because one is coughing, he said.
Liberty Swine Farms tracks when each hog receives antibiotics, Curless said. An animal cannot be slaughtered until that medicine has left its system.
Some area livestock farms avoid antibiotics.
Seven Sons Meat Co., in southwest Allen County, sells grass-fed meats. The farm rarely administers antibiotics, said Blaine Hitzfield, who handles marketing for his family’s farm. If a calf cuts its leg on barbed wire, for instance, it would be given antibiotics to prevent infection.
The Hitzfield family used to raise hogs in enclosed barns. The animals needed daily doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy, Hitzfield said.
It becomes not survival of the fittest but survival of the most drugged, he said.
Seven Sons now gives its 120 cattle and 50 pigs access to pastures. The outdoor environment helps the livestock recover from most ailments, Hitzfield said.
But farms that raise animals indoors say the controlled environment keeps animals healthy. Cooper Farms employees disinfect company trucks and change clothes to avoid spreading outside germs to the livestock, Barman said. And wild animals cannot spread illnesses to livestock kept indoors.
Farmers try to prevent animals from falling sick but still need antibiotics to help cure and prevent some diseases, Curless said.
We want to keep our (female pigs) just as healthy as we can so they’re feeling good and comfortable and producing babies, he said.