As I write this column, I am looking out a feedlot office window, sitting more than 1,400 miles from Washington, D.C., and at least a couple hundred miles from a major population center. The cornfield across the road has finished tasseling, and it looks like we will have good moisture for filling the ears.
What I’m really doing is sitting in the middle of a huge photosynthetic solar harvesting system, where the sun shining on that field combines with carbon from the air, water and other nutrients from the soil to eventually end up in the bunker and bins over here, and then contribute to the safe, wholesome beef we enjoy in this country. There are a lot of steps between that sunshine and beef on the table, and a lot of people seem to have an opinion on each one.
Before ending up in this feedlot, the cattle also fed on sunshine, which was collected by grass or other forages. Typically, moving closer to the harvest of the animal results in increased management intensity as we take over the daily feeding presentation to the cattle, as well as taking steps to convert the feedstuffs more efficiently to the final product, beef. Part of this management intensity is to use technology that increases the conversion of feed to beef.
Currently in the United States, we supplement advanced nutritional knowledge and practice by using technology such as implants and beta-agonists to increase efficiency. We also use technologies to address disease, such as vaccines, environmental strategies, cattle flow (e.g., backgrounding), and increasing attention to genetic selection for disease resistance.
As we all know, as of Jan. 1, 2017, medically important antibiotics for humans are no longer allowed in the U.S. to improve feed conversion or rate of gain in cattle. They may still be used to treat, prevent or control infectious disease in food animals.
However, using medically important antibiotics for unspecified periods to prevent or control disease is the next area of scrutiny for food animal production. Two states have specifically addressed this issue through laws (California and Maryland) with laws in committee in another state as of this writing (Oregon).
International comparisons of antibiotic use in food animals are underway, with anticipated increased detail in the future. The OIE, which is the world organization for animal health, just released a report of survey responses from member countries which summarized antibiotic use in animals. To find this report, Google “OIE Annual Report on the Use of Antimicrobial Agents in Animals.” Detail varies greatly from the different countries, but we might expect that these types of efforts lead to a more standardized method of data collection and reporting.
It’s no revelation to beef producers that the influence of legislators and regulators in Washington, D.C., and in our state capitals have had, and will continue to have, an influence on our production practices. And those major population centers enjoying abundant and inexpensive food? They will influence not only legislation and regulation, but also drive marketing demands based on both real and perceived issues.
To make sure these technologies remain available, it is essential that we accurately characterize the reasons for them and ways in which we use them. I can only imagine how foreign the view out of this office window is to our consumers, and the legislators they elect.
Every trip to D.C. or interaction with regulators emphasizes to me the need to invite, engage and educate those who make laws or rules which have an impact on our ability to efficiently raise wholesome, safe food. Join and support your local, state and national livestock organizations. Don’t only join, but show up! Technologies are changing at such a rapid pace, and continuing to be used as pivotal points in national and international trade, that we can’t allow the facts to be left out of the process.