by: Heather Smith Thomas

When a food animal is given medication systemically (such as injection of antibiotic), it takes a certain amount of time for the body to break down and eliminate it. During that period the animal should not enter the food chain. Different drugs and medications have different withdrawal times before the animal can be slaughtered.

Withdrawal times are printed on the label. This waiting time is to make sure that any residue left in the meat is below the Food and Drug Administration's maximum residue limit. When dealing with very many animals, there are always a few that get sick enough to need treatment, which necessitates a record system to keep track of withdrawal times on products for each of those animals.

Written Documentation

Rachel Endecott, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Montana State University (Bozeman) says many producers use the traditional write-it down system, and this works if cattle have individual identification such as a tag number or freeze brand number. You can write this on your kitchen calendar, if it's something you look at all the time.

"It also helps to have some form of written documentation at your chute or a notebook you carry when you are out doctoring cattle in pastures," says Heidi Carroll, Livestock Stewardship Extension Associate at South Dakota State University. "Always make sure it gets written down in terms of animal identification, date, the product, dosage and withdrawal time. It only takes a couple minutes to transfer the information from the label, to add to your notes."

Visible Reminders

For visual tracking, Carroll says there are several methods that work if a producer uses visible ear tags. "If a calf is treated, notch the tag. This serves as a visual reminder to check treatment records to make sure the withdrawal time has not yet expired if you decide to sell those calves. It also serves as a treatment indicator to help with culling decisions regarding health history, or some management decisions." The visible ear notch serves two purposes because you know that the animal was treated at some point.

Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension Educator and BQA Coordinator for Idaho, suggests putting withdrawal date on the ear tag with a marking pen. "Then if someone else is working cattle later, there's no question about which animals were treated and the withdrawal date," she says. Just notching the ear tag works, but then you have to look up the date it was treated.

"One of the requirements for organic or natural producers is to identify any animal that was treated with antibiotics. Those animals are usually given another ear tag (easy to differentiate from the others) so they can be removed from the program. Then if the producer is making a load to send to market, the tag is obvious, so those animals don't get loaded," Williams says.

"Another tactic would be to paint brand the animal on the shoulder with the date. Paint markings stay legible a long time. A visual aid on the animal itself can be helpful, especially when working/sorting cattle in the corral. You don't always take your kitchen calendar to the corral when making sorting decisions."

When treating diseases like pneumonia, trying to pick an appropriate antibiotic, culling decisions may not be your first thought, according to Carroll. "It's wise to have a method to track treatment, especially in mature animals or feedlot animals that are getting closer to market date," she said.

"A visual way to tell the animal was treated is very important if you have a lot of employees. You might have one team doctoring and another team loading and shipping the animals. If nobody on the shipping crew knows an animal was treated, this could be a problem. But if there is a different-colored tag or a notched tag, the shipping crew could check records to make sure the animal is past the withdrawal time." Even if you keep good records, you need communication and coordination.

Check Labels

Regardless of the medication, check and see if there is a withdrawal time.

Choice of antibiotic may also hinge on its withdrawal time. You might select one with a short withdrawal when thinking about how soon that animal could be marketed. For instance, an animal with foot rot, which generally responds rapidly after appropriate treatment, could be marketed fairly soon after treatment if you choose an antibiotic with a shorter withdrawal period. "There are several options for treating foot rot, so read the labels," says Endecott. "Don't be locked into a long withdrawal time if there's a shorter one that will work."

With some products, you may not know whether they have a withdrawal time unless you check labels. We expect it with antibiotics, but other medications and treatments may or may not have a withdrawal period.

All products, such as dewormers or delousers, need to be checked. "Even when cattle are on pasture and you are using herbicides/pesticides to eradicate weeds (or using these on nearby crops) and there's a grazing restriction, you need to abide by those restrictions and maintain the records," says Carroll. "Otherwise you could potentially run into residues in those animals, if they are going to market. We want to prevent residues from herbicides and pesticides. This is another type of withdrawal to track."

Make It a Habit

When giving antibiotics to a baby calf, some producers don't think about withdrawal times. "They figure that when they doctor a calf, this animal has many weeks or months before it ends up on someone's plate. But then they get out of the habit of writing down treatments. Record-keeping and keeping track of treatment dates and withdrawal times is part of antibiotic stewardship. It shows that we are cognizant of the challenges regarding public perception of human health," Carroll says.

On occasion something unusual happens, and a person decides to send an animal to market sooner than later. In this situation, you need to know when that animal was last treated.

"Tracking withdrawals is important in this situation. At some point you might be sending animals to market and have room on the trailer and decide to add an extra animal. Or you have to make an unplanned marketing decision due to drought or some situation you hadn't figured on. Taking time to have records, to verify which animals were treated and when - and whether they have all passed their withdrawal times - is important for food safety issues," says Carroll.

Technical Assistance

Some feedlot computer programs have a chute-side feature built in. "Once an animal is treated, the individual record is there. It has an indicator an alert - for withdrawal time. As that animal approaches market date, those alerts become more evident, which can help remind the operator. Choosing a product for treatment (within that type of software program) is easier for producers, because that withdrawal information is linked to the product," Carroll says.

Endecott says there is also some cattle management software that can help track this in your record-keeping. "Many of those programs now are 'in the cloud' and you can access them from a cellphone or smartphone," she says.

"You might also be able to set it up so you'd have a calendar reminder that would come up on your phone when withdrawal period is over. Even when things are written down or entered in a computer record-keeping system we still sometimes need reminders, especially during a busy time of year when you might not think to look at your records."

Many people use cell phones with multiple features including alarms. Williams says you could put the withdrawal time into your phone calendar and it would give you a reminder. Most people have their phone with them. "Even if they don't use the calendar function, there is also a note function. They can pull up the notes and read through the numbers they need to be watching for. There may be an app available for helping keep track of these dates," she says.

Accessible Records

Carroll says that on a family farm with just one or two people, the operator might think he/she doesn't need to worry because they know what they did. "This is fine, until someone else has to do your chores or make decisions if for some reason you are not there." You need a system someone else can pick up.

"If we can't be there for loading, we have to make sure that the sale is still made and the correct cattle get loaded and the buyer is still happy," Williams says. On a small operation you might know everything about the cattle and have it all in your head, but if you are unexpectedly gone, someone else is doing your chores for you; this may include making decisions about the cattle. Or maybe you need to choose another animal to fill a load; you need to know immediately which one to select and not make a mistake.

"Even if you put reminders on your phone, you probably need two systems. Then if you are gone, you don't have all the records with you (on your phone). You need a backup, such as a list you can text, a calendar in the barn or some other system. You can share calendars with your phones, but you need two sets of records so you don't leave with your red book in your pocket that lists all cattle, or your phone with all your notes," she says.

"A simple method to have easy access for treatment records would be a notebook or calendar that stays chuteside and kept dry in a Zip-lock sack. Usually your loading chute isn't too far from your working chute, and a person could check treatment records quickly without having to go back to the house for the kitchen calendar."

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