Among the agriculture stories consumers need to hear are those that show the industry has known all along they were there. It has not just suddenly discovered them. Farmers have anticipated society’s needs and have long taken measures to keep food safe and affordable.
This imperative is growing in importance, as popular food chains seek a competitive advantage by declaring they have seen a light that farmers have not. Their food is safer, better or more wholesome than the rest, they claim, because they will no longer take run-of-the-mill commodities from farmers…you know, the kind that have nourished people for eons, but are now being vilified.
The one that’s struck me lately is the pushback against animal antibiotic use. The implication by NIMBY (not in my back yard) food chains is that livestock are sick — an odd thing for companies that sell food to suggest in the first place — and that farmers are pumping them full of antibiotics to make them well, then pushing them willy-nilly onto the market. Producers across the country are implicated. And because agriculture is poorly understood, unsafe food campaigns are easily advanced.
In its 2014-2020 strategy document, the Beef Farmers of Ontario says it’s aiming for improved health status for beef cows, enabling them to live longer, more productive and profitable lives. By 2020, it also wants calves to be more robust, require less pharmaceutical intervention and regain optimal growth rates more quickly.
These goals require a significant commitment to research, as well as exemplary veterinary training. Veterinarians work with livestock producers to keep animals healthy, and help these producers develop management approaches that will address consumer demands. Less pharmaceutical intervention is certainly among them.
The North American nature of the beef sector adds additional challenges. Livestock might be shipped across Canada or the US for finishing or processing. In close confinement, and when mixed with other cattle, conditions such as respiratory disease are more prevalent.
One of the most successful research accomplishments in the University of Guelph’s history is a vaccine to guard against shipping fever, developed by Professors Pat Shewen and Bruce Wilkie. Vaccines prevent diseases and can help reduce the use of antibiotics to control them.
We vaccinate our kids. Isn’t it okay to vaccinate our livestock too, especially if it might reduce the need for antibiotics? I think the public would understand this, particularly so if it wasn’t already scared to death of farmers giving their livestock anything.
In the face of health-related challenges (not to mention perception issues) beef producers and veterinarians need to stay on their toes and have a broad perspective. At the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Professor Jessica Gordon thinks that reality should be reflected in veterinary students’ training.
She oversees what’s called the beef health management rotation program, in which four select Guelph veterinary students join eight counterparts from Cornell, Colorado State and the University of Calgary for a one-week stint at a livestock management clinic in Okotoks, Alberta. This is followed by a one-week field exercise in Ontario, which wrapped up in November.
They tour farms, feedlots and sales barns, performing activities such as pregnancy checks, necropsies, surgeries, processing, identification and treatment of sick cattle, and diet and records analysis.
This is a well-established program, having been operational at the college for 20-plus years. And it’s popular with students; Gordon gets about twice as many applications as she has available places. Students in the food animal stream are also offered rotation options in herd health, reproduction, dairy nutrition, swine, poultry or small ruminant production. In all, they’ll complete 30 weeks of rotations.
One of this year’s participants in the beef management program was Toronto-area native Sarah Copeland. She values the program’s practical side.
“I feel that most students learn better through practical applications and ‘doing’ than in a classroom. Especially in veterinary medicine – it’s one thing to learn about a disease and theoretically how you would treat it. But when you are actually in the field trying to make a decision about a sick animal or a herd problem it can be very different,” she says.
And she wants consumers to know that beef farmers care about their animals, and work hard to continually improve animal welfare and meet consumer demands.
“There are strict rules and regulations in place to maintain food safety, and prevent meat that is unsuitable for human consumption from entering the food chain,” she says. “Consumers should feel good about their decision to eat beef.”
Now there’s a story that needs to be told.