Whether or not you agree with the increase pressure put on animal agriculture to raise animals while responsibly using little or no antibiotics doesn’t really matter anymore because there is no denying or slowing that movement down right now. We have had many changes in how and when we use antibiotics in our operation with more to come in the not too distant future. I don’t want to talk too much about what these changes are but want to instead look at the effects of what these changes have on farmers who raise them.
As of now, we still raise birds conventionally, which means we still use antibiotics when needed. The difference is now everything is more a reactive use to challenges instead of a proactive one. This means we have to have symptoms of disease or increased mortalities to justify usage and then a prescription by a veterinarian to use it. We are trying to use probiotics and other “natural” products to support optimal health but the fact of the matter is living, breathing organisms get sick no matter which supplements they are given. We only need to look at ourselves to realize this.
There isn’t a worse job any farmer has than to pick up diseased animals or having to euthanize an animal due to the effects of a disease challenge. I know many people argue that the conditions the animals live in and the fact they are confined are the reason for this but I strongly disagree with them. We try to maintain optimal conditions for our animals as they are growing. This includes:
- Giving them confined areas when they are young to keep them close to the heat sources they need and increasing their “play space” numerous times the first few weeks of their lives as they grow.
- Moving from brood barns to finish barns between 4 and 5 weeks of age which gives them the proper room to grow and increased ventilation to maintain proper air quality.
Many practices in modern agriculture were designed over the years to protect and benefit animals and are now being scrutinized by activist groups and consumer groups. We try our best to raise our animals in the best conditions possible and still there is no doubt that we will have a challenge at some point in time. When we do use antibiotics, we use them according to label usage and we follow withdrawal guidelines for them to ensure the meat is safe and each flock we market is tested to prove this.
Disease challenges are very stressful on animals, but also, it is very stressful on the people caring for them. If anyone thinks farmers don’t care about the animals they raise, I would love to invite them to join one of us during a disease challenge. Add to the stress from the increased workload and watching animals go through the effects of disease, every animal that dies, is revenue lost. So between physical, emotional and financial effects, it gets hard at times to deal with. Everyone handles it differently but, no matter how, it still takes a toll on farmer’s health.
Taking a step back, I often wonder, what percentage of the consumer population is demanding these changes. Then, what percentage of these people base their demands on factual data? Also, is it worth it for processors to pursue these markets or is it a short term trend that will come and go? I know many food chain restaurants have made large public press releases when going with cage-free eggs and serving only antibiotic free or free range meats. There are commercials everywhere on TV about it as well. I wonder what would happen at these establishments if consumers would be offered these options along with conventional options on the menu. Then, each option sold at a cost which reflects the actual cost to produce them. Would people be willing to pay the increased price for these products or not? So I guess the best question to anyone reading this is how important is antibiotic free, cage free, organic, etc. products to them and what are they willing to pay for the finished product?
I really wish I was more of an answer man right now than a question man but these are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves. I don’t have the answer to whether or not we can feed a growing world population with these new production changes. I hope so, if that is the way we continue to go in the future, because otherwise we will have bigger issues to worry about. But I do know, based on the last 15 months, it will cost more for farmers to produce products this way. My greatest hope is that, IF consumers are willing to pay more for the end product with these labels or guarantees, then hopefully both processors and farmers are able to see their own profits increase.