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Managing your options in the new world of VFDs

Dave Lahr for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2017

With the implementation of new rules regulating the use of antibiotics important in human medicine, many livestock producers will need to implement different procedures to maintain the health and productivity of their livestock.

To prepare for the use of Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) medications, it is recommended that producers go through a number of steps such as establishing a vet-client-patient relationship, planning for possible health challenges and making sure your record-keeping system is prepared to track VFDs, animals and medications for two full years after a VFD medication is used.



While it is appropriate to make these preparations, there may be alternative methods for disease prevention and control that can help minimize the use of medications subject to VFD regulations.

Manage for health

Most antibiotics are used to treat or prevent bacteria-caused respiratory or digestive tract diseases. To reduce these bacterial challenges, begin with clean facilities. Clean and disinfect calf hutches between uses. Thoroughly clean and disinfect pails, bottles and liquid feed mixing equipment.

Maintain clean feedbunks and water supply. While it is important to minimize exposure with all livestock, it is especially critical with young calves, since they are naïve to many of these pathogens.

In addition, limit exposure to pathogens from manure. Avoid use of the same equipment for handling feed and manure. To the extent possible, control birds and rodents.

To maintain respiratory health in confinement facilities, provide air exchange to minimize moisture, ammonia and airborne pathogens. Maintain cold weather air flow of at least 15 cubic feet per minute for calves, 20 to 30 cubic feet per minute for replacement heifers and 50 cubic feet per minute for cows.


In moderate or hot weather, flow rates should be three to six times higher, respectively. If animals of various ages are in the same building, try to manage prevailing air flow in the direction from youngest to oldest.

Bacterial challenges often work in concert with viruses, with one opening the door for the other. In cooperation with your veterinarian, develop a vaccination protocol for your operation. Put it in writing for all employees involved, and monitor compliance within your operation. Evaluate it annually for effectiveness.

Ration and feedstuffs

Remember that ration quality and feedstuffs are key to animal health and performance. The presence of molds, and the mycotoxins they often produce, can inhibit immune function, in addition to many other detrimental effects.

Minimize exposure to these toxins by putting up clean feedstuffs, storing properly and disposing of spoiled silage. Manage feedbunks to keep fresh feed in front of your cattle, and dispose of spoiled feed.

Mud and dirt may be another source of feed contamination. Soil-borne organisms, including clostridia, can be a source of digestive tract infections. Minimize soil contamination of feedstuffs at harvest, ensiling, bunker sites and in feed alleys.

Feed a balanced, consistent diet that is supportive of digestive tract health. Provide adequate fiber and avoid excessive starch levels. This can be a challenge, especially when feeding dairy beef, where high-starch diets are common, resulting in a risk of liver abscesses.


Probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics, or direct-fed microbials, are live organisms that may improve gut health by competitive inhibition of pathogenic organisms or by producing metabolites which improve the health of the digestive tract. Effective direct-fed microbials include yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and bacillus organisms.

Yeasts are most effective in the rumen where they can consume oxygen and support fiber-digesting bacteria. Several trials using live yeast have shown increased rumen pH, putting less stress on the cattle and helping maintain more stable feed intake.

Lactic acid bacteria, like Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus and others, work best in the small intestine, helping maintain a lower-pH (more acidic) environment. This can inhibit pathogens like E. coli.

Bacillus organisms like Bacillus subtilis and B. licheniformis support health in the small and large intestine. The value of intestinal health should not be underestimated. Not only does this mean fewer cases of scours and other intestinal diseases, but a healthy gut serves as a barrier to pathogen absorption into the bloodstream.

Prebiotics are nonliving substances, usually from microbial or plant sources, which improve the health of the digestive tract through several modes of action.

Some yeast-derived substances containing mannans have been shown to bind pathogens and help prevent colonization. Beta-glucan fractions in some of these same products stimulate the immune system.

Inulin, derived from chicory root or other sources, contain fructo-oligosaccharides, which are a preferred food for beneficial bacteria in the lower GI tract.

Essential oils and organic acids

Essential oils are not actually oils. They are extracts of herbal plants like oregano, peppers (capsicum), garlic, thyme, cinnamon, clove and more. While they typically have strong familiar aromas, it is the intestinal effect that is important. Some of these plant “essences” have potent antimicrobial properties. Essential oils may be derived from plants or manufactured.

Natural plant sources usually contain more than one component, in a ratio found in nature, while synthesized products usually contain just the most prominent one. For example, natural oregano contains carvacrol, thymol, terpinenes, tannins and many others, while the manufactured oregano may contain only (or mostly) carvacrol.

Organic acids like butyric acid, fumaric acid and blends reduce the pH of the small intestine, inhibiting growth and colonization of pathogens. For use in ruminants, these acids should be coated to protect from release in the rumen, which also makes them less objectionable to the human nose. In pre-ruminant calves, unprotected butyric acid stimulates rumen papillae development.

Research on essential oils often shows benefits – but not in all cases. Sometimes this may be due to non-standardized product.

Organic acids and essential oils are an excellent combination, working synergistically in their various effects.

As you develop new protocols and procedures, work in conjunction with your veterinarian and nutritionist, making sure both are open to all the options available rather than simply writing VFDs for “the way we’ve always done it.”

Fit the program to the challenges faced in your operation, and in situations where the best answer is to use an antibiotic, be sure to follow the regulations and directions shown on the VFD.  end mark

Dave Lahr
  • Dave Lahr

  • Nutritionist
  • Form-A-Feed Inc.
  • Email Dave Lahr