The conventional system of livestock production in the United States hinges on one word: “efficiency.” Time is money, therefore the faster animals progress from birth to slaughter, the cheaper the end product will be. While cost-conscious shoppers appreciate low prices at the meat counter, there is a steep, somewhat-hidden, societal cost to raising animals in the conventional way.
Prioritizing efficiency has built a livestock production system that overuses medically important antibiotics to counteract overcrowded living conditions, lack of fresh air, low-quality feed and stressful conditions. While this system produces cheaper meat in the short term, antibiotic resistance costs the United States $55 billion every year between healthcare costs and loss of productivity.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We can raise animals in a better way. Chris Oliverio and Ron Mardenson told us how, on the April episode of Superbugs Unplugged. They work with Niman Ranch, a network of farmers and ranchers that has been doing things differently for more than 40 years.
To paraphrase Chris, Niman Ranch prides itself on inefficiencies. Its farmers raise lamb, pork, and beef without the use of antibiotics; opting instead to keep animals as healthy as possible through good animal husbandry practices. This model offers benefits for independent farmers, animal welfare and public health.
According to Ron, farmers in the Niman Ranch network can begin a hog farm for about $40,000. This initial investment pales in comparison to conventional confinement operations which can cost upwards of $500,000 to get off the ground. These smaller pork operations offer independent farmers increased economic security and flexibility.
Better animal husbandry includes both less confinement and less-crowded confinement. That means happier animals. Bacterial illnesses in livestock are often a byproduct of stressful conditions. For example, chronically unhappy pigs have a tendency to bite tails and this stress-related behavior can lead to infections. Alleviating their stress through density management, well-ventilated barns and frequent check-ups reduces the likelihood of tail biting and the need for antibiotic use.
Last, but certainly not least, raising animals without relying on medically important antibiotics is good for public health. Without swift action to reduce antibiotic use, we are staring down the barrel of 10 million superbug related deaths worldwide per year by 2050. This is a statistic that is both terrifying and largely avoidable. Conventional pork and beef producers combined consume a staggering amount of medically important antibiotics, and raising animals differently can significantly cut down on it.
To learn more about Niman Ranch and raising animals without the overuse of medically important antibiotics, take a listen to this month’s episode of Superbugs Unplugged on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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