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Pins, needles, residues and calf welfare

Robert Van Saun Published on 30 April 2013

Veal calves comprise approximately 0.25 percent of total red meat production in the U.S., yet they account for nearly 25 percent of the positive tissue residue tests. Similarly, market dairy cows represent 7.7 percent of total beef production but account for more than 66 percent of total tissue residues.

The residue problem with veal calves is not equal across all classifications: namely, bob veal (calves weighing approximately 150 lbs and less than 3 weeks old when sent to market) has the greatest risk of positive residues.



The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is testing for a broader range of therapeutic compounds with much greater measurement sensitivity capabilities.

The national average pre-weaning heifer calf mortality rate, reported by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), has not significantly changed since 1991, hovering around 8 percent.

Since most bob veal is derived from bull calves of dairy origin, both the tissue residue and heifer mortality issues focus attention on dairy calf management.

Given the empathy for young animals from the consuming public, veal calves – in addition to all heifer replacement calves – are coming under greater scrutiny relative to calf welfare concerns. The lyric “For the times they are a-changin’,” written by Bob Dylan some 40 years ago, applies today when it comes to calf management practices.

However, fundamental time-tested calf management practices, when properly enacted, allow one’s calf-care program to change with the times, promoting health and welfare while minimizing potential for illegal tissue residues.


Calf management: Plan for consistency
The care of calves has always been a labor-intensive, yet critically important chore on the farm. Current interests in ensuring proper animal care on farms have especially focused on calf care.

Key concerns in calf management incorporate some insurance for all calves, independent of gender or purpose, to receive adequate amounts of quality colostrum. Additionally, welfare assessment programs evaluate the adequacy of continuing nutrition.

Calf housing systems should provide a safe, clean and comfortable environment, further promoting normal behavior and good health. It should also allow for easy calf care, preventing rough handling.

These are not new concepts or expectations being applied inappropriately to dairy farms. However, the challenge with the changing times of welfare assessment programs is the focus on dictating calf management methods rather than desired outcomes of a quality calf-care system.

The goal of any calf program is to minimize mortalities and disease treatments. Feeding high-quality colostrum (determined by measuring immunoglobulin content) at appropriate volume in a timely manner (within six hours of birth) is the fundamental cornerstone of calf care.

Successful calf care, resulting in desired health and welfare outcomes, is a product of consistency in all aspects of calf feeding and husbandry. Consistency is a product of providing knowledge for why practices are being completed and defining a standard method of practice.


This is the perfect opportunity to employ well-described standard operating procedures (SOPs) for calf givers to follow. Work with your herd veterinarian to establish the needed SOPs for calf care. Many of these daily practices are described in the Calf Track training system manual .

Calf health issues: Residues and needles

Predominant therapeutic compounds identified as illegal tissue residues by the FDA in bob veal calves include neomycin, oxytetracycline, gentamicin, tilmicosin, sulfa-based antibiotics and flunixin meglumine. Other antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin have been identified as illegal residues in calf tissues.

The source of compounds contributing to illegal tissue residues includes (in decreasing order): inappropriate therapy, feeding waste milk, feeding medicated milk replacers (being phased out) and colostrum from treated cows.

Though risk of tissue residues from providing colostrum from treated cows is low, dry cow management using shorter dry periods may increase this possibility.

Primary factors contributing to residues from therapeutic agents include inappropriate dosage, extended treatment period, different route of administration from label, multiple drug use or some combination.

Even in some cases where drugs are administered in a prescribed method, physiologic changes in calf metabolism resultant from disease may alter the rate of drug clearance.

Injection site lesions are most often the result of intramuscular injections of irritating compounds such as oxytetracyline and flunixin meglumine. The recommended route of administration for flunixin meglumine is intravenous.

Intramuscular administration is convenient for owner administration but results in tremendous tissue reaction. Adherence to recommended quality assurance practices for injection sites should be part of any calf treatment protocol .

Residue avoidance: Adhere to protocols
In reviewing a number of posted warning letters from the FDA to dairy farms regarding documented illegal residues, the primary contributing factor recognized at the farm level was a lack of treatment records.

Remember that calves shipped from your farm may travel to one or more other locations where they may receive some therapeutic intervention before they end at the slaughterhouse. Without treatment records you have no documentation that the illegal residue did not originate at your farm.

Other factors responsible for illegal residues include not following the designated withdrawal time (label or veterinary directed), exceeding the approved dosage, medications administered or fed by mistake and use of medications in an extra-label manner without veterinary oversight.

The Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) provides some flexibility in administering medications in a way to ensure proper control of bacterial disease. A great majority (88 percent) of antibiotic use comes in the direct treatment of clinical disease.

Requisite to applying the intent of AMDUCA is the necessity of veterinary oversight and a valid client-patient relationship (VCPR) with that veterinarian. Veterinarians must make an informed decision on medication use in an extra-label use based on the guidelines of AMDUCA.

The single-most important component to your calf health care program relative to residue prevention is establishing a treatment protocol that all involved in calf care will follow.

A protocol should contain a case definition (criteria to recognize the disease to be treated), medication directions (dose, frequency and site), outcome evaluation (criteria to ascertain treatment response) and animal disposition algorithm (decision tree to retreat, administer new therapy, salvage at appropriate withdrawal time or humanely euthanize).

Your veterinarian should be an integral partner to helping to develop such a treatment protocol and oversee its effectiveness or need for modification.

Treatment records based on the protocol should be maintained at least two years. Remember that treatment records are the first thing an FDA inspector will ask for upon a site review for a documented residue.

Yes, times are a-changing in the realm of calf care and management: more consumer and regulatory scrutiny, all with a broader scope and greater degree of sensitivity. However, producers can adjust to the changing times by employing time-tested calf-care practices.

Use SOPs and treatment protocols in conjunction with veterinary oversight to ensure consistency in your calf management and care practices while avoiding the risk of illegal tissue residues. PD


Robert Van Saun
Extension Veterinarian
Penn State University