How Alberta cattle are helping research on antimicrobial resistance

Researchers at the University of Calgary are using Alberta beef and dairy cattle to conduct studies on antimicrobial use and resistance. 

Herman Barkema is the scientific director of the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) One Health Consortium. Several institutions across Alberta (including U of C, the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge) partnered to create the consortium, which researches AMR in both humans and animals. Barkema himself focuses on dairy cattle and is one of the founders of the consortium established in 2019.

“As veterinarians, we want to be able to treat animals with antibiotics when they have these infections and get sick,” said Barkema. 

“For that purpose, we really need to stop the increase of antimicrobial resistance, and the best way to stop it is to use less antibiotics and not use certain specific antibiotics anymore.”

For years now, experts have warned that the overuse of antibiotics (one type of antimicrobial medicine) in both humans and farm animals is linked to a growing number of bacteria becoming resistant to medication

According to Barkema, the main way antibiotic resistant bacteria could spread from farm animals to humans is through runoff water from farms, which can enter into drinking water supply or bodies of water where people swim. Barkema said that farm workers and their families are particularly at risk as they are frequently in contact with animals. 

We really need to stop the increase of antimicrobial resistance, and the best way to stop it is to use less antibiotics.-Herman Barkema

But AMR is not only a concern for human and animal health. It can also have environmental and economic impacts, which is part of the “one health approach” Barkema says the consortium takes to understand the wide-ranging impacts of AMR. 

Abundance of Alberta cattle 

While One Health Consortium has a range of different research projects, Alberta cattle are serving an important role in some studies on antimicrobial use and ways of limiting it in the livestock industry.

Karin Orsel, a veterinary professor at U of C and researcher with One Health Consortium, is conducting a study on how to reduce the risk of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) in beef cattle.

“The biggest challenge that we have in the beef industry is in fall, when the calves born in that year are separated from their moms and brought to feedlots where they are raised for meat production … they undergo a lot of stress because [of that],” Orsel said.

Karin Orsel, a veterinary professor at the University of Calgary, is conducting research on how to reduce the risk of Bovine Respiratory Disease. (Submitted by Karin Orsel)

It’s when calves are moved to a feedlot that they often get BRD. Antimicrobials are then used to treat the disease.

“What we can do to make the calves less likely to [get] sick and therefore the industry less reliant on the use of antibiotics?” said Orsel.

Orsel’s team is testing a method called preconditioning so calves are better prepared for the feedlot.

That method involves a weaning process where calves are separated from their mothers well before they’re transported to the feedlot. The goal, Orsel said, is to spread out stressful interventions in a calf’s life over time, so that “by the time they’re loaded up for transportation, they are in the best shape ever and not so likely to become sick.”

Orsel said the main reason Alberta is an ideal location for her research is because of the sheer number of beef cattle in the province.

According to a 2016 Statistics Canada census, Alberta has about 40 per cent of the country’s 3.8 million beef cows.

Importance of transparency in livestock industry

Janice Tranberg, president and CEO of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association said it’s important to be transparent about the use of antimicrobials in the cattle industry and make sure such medication is only being used when necessary.

Since 2018 farmers have been required to get a prescription from a veterinarian to use antimicrobials for their farm animals. Tranberg said the prescription requirement was the starting point to limiting the use of antimicrobials in the cattle industry.

“I think that’s part of the project that we’re working on, to make sure that we measure and that we’re responsible in the amount of use of antimicrobials,” said Tranberg.

Calves at a feedlot at Olds College in Alberta. Orsel says beef cattle calves often get respiratory disease when separated from their mothers abruptly and sent to feedlots. (Submitted by Karin Orsel)

Tranberg said the Cattle Feeders’ Association, along with a number of other livestock organizations in Alberta and across the country, are working with the federal Public Health Agency to monitor the use of antimicrobials in farm animals. This monitoring is part of an initiative called the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS), which began in 2002.

Veterinarian and epidemiologist Carolee Carson is the surveillance manager for CIPARS and has worked with the program since its inception. She said there are success stories that point to positive changes in the livestock industry when it comes to limiting the use of antimicrobials. 

In 2014, the Chicken Farmers of Canada banned the use of the antibiotic Ceftiofur after the drug was linked to rising rates of resistance of a strain of salmonella in both humans and animals. After the ban was implemented, Carson said resistance rates plummeted not only in salmonella but also in other bacteria like E. coli. 

To Carson, this example indicates why monitoring AMR rates is important. 

“Everyone has a role to play and we have to keep conducting surveillance to see what’s happening,” she said.

Herman Barkema, scientific director of the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) One Health Consortium, says AMR can have impacts on the economy, environment, and animal and human health. (Submitted by Herman Barkema)

Hope for the future

Both Orsel and Barkema are confident that the livestock industry is moving in the right direction to prevent AMR. 

“[Farmers are] proud of their product, and so they want to make sure that they’re doing the right thing for public health, but also for their animals,” said Barkema. 

Orsel agrees that across the world, livestock farmers and companies are taking greater responsibility to manage antibiotic use. 

“I am not looking for a world without antibiotics being used in the livestock industry because that would be a welfare issue, right? You want to treat a sick animal,” said Orsel. 

“So we’re focusing way more on management than we are focusing on our dependence on antibiotics to raise a healthy product.”

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