Antibiotics: Three Steps for Judicious Use

Using antibiotics responsibly benefits both animal and human health

“Many producers know the importance of the judicious use of antibiotics,” said Joe Gillespie, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “It’s about giving the right treatment, at the right time, for the right health concern.”

Brad White, DVM, associate professor at Kansas State University, agrees. “There is a whole host of factors that can cause cattle to get sick,” he explained. “Not all sick cattle need antibiotics. The goal is to match up the appropriate treatment for the correct disease.”

Drs. White and Gillespie emphasize that producers should work with their veterinarians to determine the best way to address diseases. Additionally, they offer the following practices to help your operation make strides toward more judicious antibiotic use:

Step 1 – Develop a case definition

Whether addressing bovine respiratory disease (BRD) or other diseases, it’s important to have a case definition: clear diagnostic criteria that are regularly used, by all who are accessing the cattle, to determine what might be wrong. In the instance of BRD, a case definition might include the most prevalent signs, such as depression, gaunt appearance and labored breathing.1

“There is a lot of variability among calves and environments, but a case definition can bring consistency to a producer’s treatment plan, which can help them in the long run,” said Dr. White.

Step 2 – Create a treatment protocol

Once you’ve identified the likely culprit of your sick cattle, it again comes down to consistency. It’s important to follow a treatment protocol, which matches an appropriate treatment to a specific disease. In addition to clinical signs in individual cattle, there are other factors that can be part of your diagnosis of BRD, including recent stressors such as commingling, weather, overcrowding, transportation and weaning.2

Step 3 – Evaluate outcomes and refine protocols

While the treatment protocol is critical, keeping good records is just as important. Tracking the use of therapeutic agents will provide data over time to help continually refine the operation’s protocols.

Record keeping doesn’t have to be complicated, but it certainly should track the basics, such as first-treatment response rate and case fatality. Records can give you signals when herd health is changing one way or another. While the specifics will vary, depending on the type of operation — cow-calf, stocker or feedlot — the variables to measure come down to performance and health.

According to Dr. White, keeping good records over time can help answer several questions, such as:

  • Is it time to change my case definition?
  • How well are the treatment protocols performing?
  • Does the therapeutic plan need to be altered?

“If producers use these steps, and work in concert with their veterinarians, they can be well-versed in the responsible use of antibiotics,” concluded Dr. Gillespie.



1 Edwards AJ. Respiratory diseases of feedlot cattle in the central USA. Bovine Pract 1996;30:5–7.

2 Sifferman RL, Wolff WA, Holste JE, et al. Field efficacy evaluation of gamithromycin for treatment of bovine respiratory disease in cattle at feedlots. Intern J Appl Res Vet Med 2011;9(2):166–175.