In the spring of 1958, one year after I opened my practice in California, one of my new clients, the cow boss on the extensive Crummer Ranch told me that because of the torrential winter rains and the resulting waist high grass growth, that they were going to keep up to a hundred head of calves in order to harvest the grass.
The Crummer Ranch, like most of the cattle ranches in the area, was normally a “cow/calf outfit”, selling all of their weaned calves. But, that year, because they had more grass than the cow herd could consume, they would keep a portion of the calves to fatten on the available forage (oh, how I miss those wet years and the green, green Springs they brought).
Then, the cow boss explained, “So we have a question. The feedlots are all supplementing their feed program with antibiotics. The ads we get say that the increased weight gains more than make up for the cost of the antibiotics. You’re our vet so do you think this is a good idea?”
“No,” I said. “I’m well aware of the current popularity of supplementing feeder cattle with antibiotics, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” my client asked.
“Because I revere evolution and I am afraid that certain bacteria may be resistant to the antibiotics and, if so, they may pass it on to the next generation of bacteria. If so, we may encourage strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop, and that would be a tragedy because antibiotics are a recent and miraculous discovery. As a veterinary practitioner I treasure them. I have seen so many miraculous cures. If they ever lose their potency I think it would be tragic. So, I think we should use them sparingly and very selectively.
Elbert Griffin, an experienced cowman nodded, “Okay Doc, we’ll take your advice and forget the supplementation.”
“But,” I said, “You asked me for my opinion. You are in this industry to make maximum profits. So, I’m not advising you to avoid the antibiotics. I know that everybody is using them. If it will increase profits, go ahead and use them. I just told you what I’m afraid will happen if we overuse antibiotics. If you asked me if using them would be profitable, now, for this year’s calf crop, I’d have to say yes.”
“No Doc, what you said makes sense, so we’ll just turn the calves out to pasture like we always do.”
I regret that I was correct. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a very major medical threat today.
But, there is an ironic twist to this story. Long afterward Elbert phoned me and asked if I remembered the conversation. Of course, I did. Then he said, “You know we decided to take your advice. We didn’t supplement the calves with antibiotics. Then, when it came time to sell them we heard about a packing house in Los Angeles that was paying fifty percent more for cattle that had not received any antibiotic or chemical supplements. So, thank you Doc. You increased our profit.”
This was 1958! Before the sixties!
I was unaware of a health movement, which discouraged “unnatural” supplements. Of course this was also Southern California where so many extremist movements thrive. So I’m writing this for the record. I had never heard of anybody predicting antibiotic resistant bacteria, nor had I heard of a food producing company that would pay a premium for antibiotic free meat.
All of us involved were happy!
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