For most people, Jan. 1 was a relaxing holiday, complete with parades, football and bowls of black-eyed peas. For livestock producers, it was the day when a new rule went into effect placing the use of all medically important antibiotics that are administered through feed or water under veterinary supervision.
For the past two years, producer groups, animal health companies, feed manufacturers and suppliers and land-grant extension personnel throughout the tri-state region have been conducting extensive educational campaigns to inform producers and prepare them for the expansion of FDA's veterinary feed directive.
The educational push is far from over, and experts say some aspects of the rule are still evolving. In spite of their best efforts, many producers will still likely be caught by surprise when they try to purchase medicated feed products in the coming months.
By law, producers of any and all kinds of food animals, from bison to honeybees, will now be required to obtain veterinary feed authorization, signed by a vet with whom they have an adequate client-patient relationship, before administering medically important antibiotics through feed or water. The main drugs affected are chlortetracycline, tylosin, oxytetracycline and neomycin. Injectable antibiotics are not affected by the rule.
Nathan Anderson, the extension agent in Payne County, Oklahoma, has hosted no fewer than four meetings about the changes so far.
Still, he acknowledges that some producers will be caught offguard.
"We've tried to make people aware of what's coming," he said.
At the end of December, he hosted a regional cattlemen's conference that included yet another informational session on the VFD rule, this time featuring a presentation by Jared Taylor, a teacher and researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oklahoma State University.
Also attending the meeting was Elisabeth Giedt, who is in charge of OSU's continuing education and outreach to the state's private-practice veterinarians.
"Are the vets ready for this? I think so," she said. "The feed stores? Definitely, they're ready. Are all the farmers and ranchers on board? That I'm not too sure about."
Most producers have probably heard the topic brought up by their existing veterinarian, she said, but in some rural areas, having access to a vet remains a problem.
Another group that could be caught unaware is those who purchase a few head of stock from time to time.
Many universities and livestock organizations have resources available online or in the form of printed fact sheets, but some aspects of the law still need clarification, Taylor said.
For example, while the VFD document typically specifies "duration of use" not to exceed five days, it is not clear how that applies to free choice mineral that contains an antibiotic to prevent anaplasmosis, a blood-borne disease common in Oklahoma and Kansas, or tylosin, which is sometimes fed at low levels to prevent liver abscesses.
"You may or may not be able to get the same product you've been using, depending on how your feed mill and vet choose to handle that," Taylor said. "If you are using it for control or prevention of disease, that part is fine, but how long can you feed it is still hazy. FDA is probably going to clarify that in the future, but if you and your vet feel comfortable writing a VFD for that, that's legal, at least for now."
Anaplasmosis, which is spread by flies and ticks, is a growing problem and has been migrating westward. One thing the new VFD rule has done is to increase interest in combating it with a vaccine rather than through medicated feed or minerals, Taylor said.
In addition, he said paperwork for drugs administered through drinking water tends to be more flexible, requiring a prescription rather than a VFD script, which might make that option more popular for treating some health issues in the future.
Another likely change is the removal of antibiotics from products where they weren't really needed in the first place, such as milk replacer, which would be beneficial in the long run, Taylor said.
It's not up to producers to understand every detail of the new rule. The most important thing for them is to have a working relationship with a veterinarian who can walk them through the process, explore the options and help them find a solution that meets the new requirements.
The vet, the feed supplier and the producer are all required to maintain the necessary documentation for at least two years in case of an audit. All three parties share some liability in making sure antibiotics are used responsibly.
Jeff Jaronek, program administrator with the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, said that while livestock producers can expect to see some regulatory relief under a future Trump administration, the new drug overhaul is likely here to stay.
"We don't see this one being pulled back," he said. "We might see some changes made to improve the rule, but we would be shocked if they repeal it."
Veterinarians are in the process of informing their clients about the changes and in some cases will be making first-time farm visits to assess new operations.
Justen Carroll owns Cedar Ridge Veterinary Hospital just up the road in Perkins, Oklahoma. He said he had not yet determined how to set fees to cover his costs. Currently he charges $30 for a set of health papers and $45 to make a farm call. Based on that, he thinks he might end up charging $25 or $30 to write a VFD script. (Each script is good for six months, at which time it would have to be reissued.)
Carroll uses a computer program, called Global Vet Link, to generate electronic scripts, which cost him $5 to $10 apiece. He also has the option of using a handwritten form.
"I think once we get it implemented we'll be able to streamline things a little bit," he said. "I don't think it will be too bad. Cattle producers are just a very independent kind of people who are used to being in charge of their own operations. They want to do things right, but they aren't used to the government telling them what to do. That's the part that rubs them a little bit the wrong way."
Candace Krebs is with Ag Journal.