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Producers, vets gearing up for drug changes

Cattle graze in a field west of Letcher. (Matt Gade/Republic)

IDEAL — In three days, the nation's livestock ranchers will have restricted access to some drugs that were available on an over-the-counter basis.

In October 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration amended its regulations regarding veterinary feed directive drugs, which will require livestock producers to gain approval from a veterinarian before purchasing some antibiotics.

The changes take effect for producers on Jan. 1, but Jorgensen Land and Cattle, near Ideal, about 12 miles north of Winner, has already received two veterinary feed directives (VFD), similar to a prescription, this month from its vet for antibiotics.

"The Winner Animal Clinic kind of used us as a test run to see how it went," said Cody Jorgensen, an owner and partner of Jorgensen Land and Cattle. "We internally set up a system or protocol, if you will, and are just trying to stay ahead of the game."

Jorgensen isn't a fan of the new rules.

Although his fourth-generation operation, which leases 3,500 bulls every year, has always worked closely with a veterinarian, Jorgensen said the extra time required for a veterinarian to complete a VFD will undoubtedly increase costs for producers, which is a problem in a time when beef prices are low and profit margins are small.

Congress enacted the Animal Drug Availability Act in 1996, which created a new classification for VFD drugs. Since then, the FDA has sought to update and improve the regulations and settled upon two major changes: ending the use of antibiotics for production purposes and removing over-the-counter availability of antibiotics that are also used in human medicine.

"We're doing this in response to the public asking for a safe food source. That's what the basic premise to all this is," said Dave Barz, a veterinarian at Parkston-based NorthWest Veterinary and Supply, which has offices in Mitchell, Wagner, Menno and Yankton.

Barz said the changes are in response to concerns that heavy antibiotic usage is leading to the development of bacterial strains that are resistant to drugs.

For now, producers can buy antibiotics directly from feed producers, just as someone can buy cold medicine over-the-counter at a pharmacy. But as of Jan. 1, antibiotics will be moved off the shelves and require a VFD, which is like a prescription for livestock.

Barz said the rules could bring veterinarians a little more business, and NorthWest Veterinary and Supply is prepared to offer VFDs using a computer service sourced out to a company in Iowa. The clinic will charge a nominal fee to producers to maintain the service, but Barz said the program will keep the process brief and running smoothly.

According to South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven, of the state's Animal Industry Board, 27 drug companies voluntarily modified their labels at the request of the FDA before any rules took effect. The labels now limit the antibiotic use to treatment, prevention and control of disease and no longer include provisions for growth production.

But even if producers use fewer antibiotics, Oedekoven doesn't expect drug-resistant bacteria to disappear overnight.

"I can't ... say to you today, if we reduce our use of antibiotics, we're automatically going to improve our ability to treat infections in humans," Oedekoven said. "It's a much more complex problem than that, but I think everyone in human medicine, veterinary medicine, environmental health recognizes that we should only be using antibiotics when it looks like they're actually going to work."

Still, Oedekoven said veterinarians are split on the issue, although most have accepted the responsibility as the public looks to them to be experts on the issue.

Oedekoven expects many producers to continue business as usual. Hog farmers already work closely with veterinarians, and dairy producers are already heavily regulated when it comes to antibiotics.

He said cattle feedlot operations could be among the most affected. If they don't already have a close relationship with a vet, ranchers could be put off by the extra cost and decide against buying antibiotics at all, which could lead to heavy costs if a disease does break out.

And ultimately, the new rules are not the be-all-end-all of the argument. Oedekoven expects the FDA to get involved with drug companies to fine tune drug labeling as problems inevitably arise.

"I wish I could say, 'Yeah, it's all good,' but I really think there are some gaps out there that we will probably only identify when the changes kick in here next week. We'll see what happens," Oedekoven said.

Jorgensen said the regulations spawned from antibiotic misuse by just a few producers.

"Number one, it costs you money, and number two, it's probably not good for the cattle, so why would producers do it? It doesn't make sense, but sometimes things aren't always fair," Jorgensen said. "One bad apple can screw up everything."

Jorgensen said he's not happy about the situation, but while it could be tough for some operations to meet the financial burden, he expects to find a way to keep operating as usual.

"It's like any other challenge. You conquer and prevail," Jorgensen said. "That doesn't mean I agree with it, but it's one of those things we're regulated to do, so you do it."

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