Insights Livestock

Farm Babe: The sky is not falling on animal antibiotics


Recently on Facebook I was tagged in a post with this as the photo and headline:

OK, from a first-impression standpoint, this drives me bonkers. Clearly the image is using fearmongering to generate clicks. It looks scary, painful, and awful. That cute little piggie must be being abused or something, right? What a cruel man in that photo! Whatever thoughts are running through your mind about it, it’s important to remember that fear sells. It’s the same reason why we hear so much bad info on the news. Scary headlines unfortunately tend to generate results.

Science and facts aren’t sexy. Real farming isn’t that exciting to many people, and practices aren’t very well known because a majority of the population is very far removed from the farm. Who knows a real farmer anymore?

Secondly, the headline. “Stop giving them so many.” OK, let’s talk about this for a minute. Farming is a business. If farmers wanted to give them “so many,” they would go broke. You know how when you’re sick, you go to the doctor but medications are expensive? Fortunately for us as humans, we have health insurance programs to help cover the costs of medications. For us as farmers, we do not have that luxury. One bottle of Draxxin, for example, can set a cattle rancher back $2,000. Do you enjoy spending money on medicine for fun? Didn’t think so. Farmers work with very tight profit margins. Medications are only used if needed, and it’s important to note that a lot of antibiotics used in livestock are not the same type used in humans.

Some of you may be skeptical of that statement. You might be thinking, “No way! They’re added to the feed! They’re used for growth promotion purposes!” It’s true that this used to be the case. But the FDA started phasing these out in 2012, and as of 2017 the FDA rolled out new regulations (look up the VFD, veterinary feed directive) that no longer allow this. Now, a vast majority of antibiotics are no longer allowed unless absolutely medically necessary, in which case you need a prescription from the veterinarian. Just like for us as humans needing prescriptions from our doctors, farmers now need prescriptions for our animal doctors. That relationship between farmer and vet is becoming much closer than ever before.

In the U.S., there are very strict regulations and oversight for antibiotic usage. By comparison, if you go to other countries around the world, antibiotics are sold over the counter whereas here we must go to the doctor for a script. Over the years, we have seen the medical industry improve by leaps and bounds, and medicine for animals is no different. Researchers have discovered what some of the biggest problems were in livestock and have developed newer vaccine innovations. Partner this with the fact that larger scale farms are cleaner than ever before with improved technology and practices that have eliminated their use on many, many farms. There’s a reason why you see ads claiming “no antibiotics ever” on some of the biggest meat brands out there like Tyson Foods, Perdue, etc. It can be very common nowadays to raise animals with no antibiotics anymore because often times they are simply not needed.

But what if they are needed? Fair to say it would be cruel to withhold medicine from a sick animal, right? If farmers give medicine to their livestock, by law that animal must go through a withdrawal period before it can legally go to market. This means that all meat and dairy products are, in fact, antibiotic free, because the withdrawal time gives the medicine time to leave their system. Every single animal is checked, and I’ve written about this here. You can also look up some good stats on the USDA food safety website

As I said above, farming is a business — and just like any business, you want to protect your product. Assuming animals are abused on farms is like asking the owner of a car dealership to key their inventory. Farmers don’t want to “key cars.” It’s in their best interest to keep them happy and healthy because that equals profits. To learn more about what it’s actually like on a larger scale farm, check out this podcast or this link. Most people have never been to a so called “factory” farm before, but I would encourage people to visit them and see for themselves before judging. Not everything on the internet is true, of course.

Next, let’s talk volume and dosage. There is a popular myth running around from anti-meat activists and some media claiming 80 percent of antibiotics are used in animals, but lacks credible context. Consider there are nearly 8 billion people in the world but 52 billion food animals, of course that number is going to be misleading. There are also billions of pets, and they deserve medical treatment as well when they’re sick. So are there more meds used in animals overall? Given the numbers, most likely … yes. The combined weight of livestock and poultry in the U.S. alone is more than triple the combined weight of American men and women. A 1,200 pound steer for example is equal to roughly six men. If a steer needs treatment for pneumonia, common sense will tell you that it will require a larger dose. Similarly, it is logical that our combined U.S. livestock and poultry herds and flocks will require more antibiotics by volume than our combined human population. While these are crude calculations about antibiotic use and dosing, they reveal the misleading nature of the “80 percent of antibiotics are used in animals” claim. It’s notable that the CDC in 2013 said over-use of antibiotics in humans is the leading contributor to resistance. This link further explains all of this in detail.

Some of you may be wondering about antibiotic resistance from livestock to humans. I’ve written all about this previously here. Also, make sure to click the highlighted links for more info and sources. Another good link that connects us with further information is


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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