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Antibiotics aren’t always the answer

Antibiotics Save Lives

Two years ago, an antibiotic saved my life. A dog bite had unbeknownst to me led to a

systematic infection that destroyed my heart valve, later requiring open-heart surgery.

For months, multiple antibiotics failed to deal with the infection, and I was barely able to


It wasn’t just “antibiotics” that saved my life, but a particular antibiotic: vancomycin,

which worked after multiple others had failed. I know well this drug as a dairy

veterinarian, because I am not allowed to use it. Vancomycin is only allowed in human

medicine and in small-animal cases where the infection has documented resistance to

other antibiotics. Because it can be so effective, it is protected from widespread use,

especially in food-producing animals.

The next year, my father-in-law’s best friend succumbed to such an antibiotic-resistant

infection and he died. Antibiotics save lives — and remain effective on our farms — only

if we guard their use.

To that end, on June 11 th , 2023, all antibiotics for livestock will require a prescription.

The FDA believes that veterinarian involvement will reduce the unnecessary use of

antibiotics. What is good for society at large is also good for individual farms: Repeated

and sustained use of using an incorrect antibiotic can diminish overall effectiveness and

lead to resistance within your own herd.

Using antibiotics without knowing what the germ is or the most effective antibiotic is like

playing darts: missing the target means losing valuable time while also spending money

needlessly. And it breeds resistance. Dr. Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin,

said it is “not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by

exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them,” and described the same in

the body.

We often reflexively reach for an antibiotic when it may not be the right one or even truly

needed. When is the last time you ran milk cultures to see what your cows need at dry-

off? Figure 1 shows the results of DHIA data presented at the 2016 World Buiatrics

Congress comparing matched pairs of conventional and organic farms. USDA NAHMS

data shows that 90% of conventional farms use antibiotics at dry-off. USDA certified-

organic farms cannot. Looking at fresh cows (<40 DIM), there wasn’t any statistical

difference in SCC between the two farm types. The data suggests that there are

methods other than antibiotics to dry off cows.

In cases of pneumonia, metritis and foot rot, ceftiofur can work really well.

Unfortunately, after being FDA-approved in the 1990’s, it has lost some of its “punch”

against pneumonia, likely due to widespread use owing to its original zero milk and zero

meat withholding times.

Additionally, some germs have natural defenses that won’t be killed even in the

presence of a correctly selected antibiotic. These will reproduce and newly minted bugs

won’t be killed by the same antibiotic they were exposed to previously. Pneumonia

(shipping fever) is a life and death situation and thankfully newer more powerful

antibiotics, if given early enough, will often resolve an otherwise fatal case, but the

history of treatment failures as well as basic biology suggest that we will again find

ourselves with resistant bacteria at some point.


Perhaps nowhere are resistant bacteria more a challenge on a dairy farm as in the

udder. Even when the right antibiotic is identified, what shows to work in the lab may not

work within the living animal due to host-pathogen interactions. Additionally, depending

on the milk volume being produced in the udder, a tube of antibiotics can get very

diluted and be present below the threshold of effect. Clearly, there is a place for non-

antibiotic treatment of mastitis on dairy farms, and historical treatments may provide a

way forward in preventing resistant infections.

The Key to Cure: The Immune System

While the discovery of antibiotics was indeed revolutionary, prior to antibiotics obviously

not all infections ended in death, otherwise none of us would be here. The immune

system is truly the key to cure. A correctly prescribed antibiotic essentially buys time for

the immune system to rally and re-establish internal equilibrium. Yet it’s still the immune

system that ultimately returns the cow to health.

In the mid-1880’s Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur identified specific bacteria that

caused infection and the body’s response to conquer the challenge. Treatment with

biologics soon started. Biologics work by stimulating the animal’s immune system by

vaccination or by providing it with immediately usable pre-formed antibodies. Many

common diseases were successfully treated with pre-formed antibodies, among them

shipping fever and calf scours. As a practitioner, I’ve successfully treated numerous

cases of hot coliform mastitis, pneumonia and salmonella using injectable antibodies

(Bovi-Sera, Multi-Serum) and non-specific immune stimulation (AmpliMune).

Autogenous bacterins (custom vaccines) were also used. Autogenous bacterins make

sense since bacteria are harvested from active infection within a specific herd, then

purified and potentized to stimulate the immune system to overcome the challenge.

Using autogenous bacterins, I’ve seen dramatic reduction of Staph aureus in herds

without making any other changes. Vaccinate calves at 6 months, 1 year, then right

before freshening and annually from then on. Your veterinarian needs to be involved per

USDA rules.

Another technique was to subcutaneously reinject the milk of a cow right back into

herself. In “Udder Diseases Of The Cow” by Dr. A.S. Alexander (advertised regularly in

Hoard’s in the 1930’s) the use of raw milk was described: “just as it was taken from the

quarter and this we injected in 20cc doses every 2 days. From this we generally

obtained a marked amelioration on the following day, after the first injection, and often a

cure within 10 days. If the milk contained curds it was filtered through sterilized felt. We

have observed that this method of treatment gives better results and more rapid results

when employed early…” I have seen this approach used successfully.

Plant-derived medicines were also widely used to treat mastitis. In addition to bacterins,

Haver-Glover Laboratories manufactured and sold “H-G Intramammary Disinfectant,” a

mixture that included thymol and oregano. Thymol and oregano have proven

antibacterial properties. Plant-based medicines and biologics have provided mainstream

veterinary medicine many answers to infectious-disease processes. Plant medicines

have the added benefit of not being susceptible to resistance because they contain

thousands of individual compounds that defy microbes’ ability to adapt.

While antibiotics when used strategically can aid dairy farmers long-term with judicious

use, it’s also fair to say that there are successful and historically proven methods of

treating common dairy-cow problems without antibiotics.

Figure 1

2006: 33 matched pairs Conventional Certified-organic P value

SCC < 40 Days In Milk 2.57 3.11 .14

2016: 61 matched pairs

SCC < 40 Days In Milk 3.3 3.7 .11

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