Antibiotics Will Now Require a Veterinarian’s Prescription

By Burt Rutherford Contributing Editor 

This is an opportunity, says Dr. Justin Welsh, executive director of livestock technical services for Merck Animal Health. “Is this an opportunity to improve what I’m doing with respect to therapy?” he asks. “Because what is going to happen is there’s going to have to be a veterinarian involved to access antibiotics in the future.”

Welsh is referring to the June 11, 2023, deadline that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implemented to make all antibiotics that are medically important in human medicine and labeled for use in food animal medicine available only by a veterinarian’s prescription. “This means no antibiotics will be available over the counter (OTC),” he adds.

The reason for FDA’s action, Welsh says, is there has been pressure on antibiotic use because of the very real aspect of antibiotic resistance. “That’s the driver behind this, to preserve the antibiotics we have.”

And that means, to access most of the antibiotics used in food animal medicine in the future, you’ll need a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship, or VCPR.

All that entails is that a veterinarian is familiar with your operation, your production goals and the herd health challenges you’re likely to face. If that relationship already exists, you’ll be able to access antibiotics as you always have.

If you don’t have a valid VCPR, it’s time to get one. While Welsh admits that’s a pain point for beef producers in underserved areas, it’s still possible. If you don’t know a veterinarian, visit the website for your state veterinarian’s association for a list or check with your neighbors. Or visit with the sales reps with animal health companies like Merck to make connections. Then, contact the veterinarian and ask to arrange a visit the next time they’re in your general vicinity.

“Use that opportunity when you connect with a veterinarian to look at your program and say, ‘Hey, am I doing everything I can with respect to the vaccines that are available to prevent or reduce the severity of any disease that might happen so I can lessen the use of antibiotics?’”

A big part of preserving the use the antibiotics currently available to beef producers is to use them judiciously, Welsh says. That means a solid herd health program should focus on disease prevention.

“It starts with the cow, looking at getting her pregnant, the vaccines that are available pre-breeding and during gestation, including bulls and their vaccine program,” he says. “Then moving into preparing that fetus for life outside the cow.”

Look first at scours, which is a major disease for over-the-counter antibiotics, he says. Work with your veterinarian toward preventing a scours outbreak, including vaccinations and management.

In that respect, consider developing a biosecurity program. “I think of scouring calves as a good example of biosecurity within the herd,” says Dr. Julia Herman, a veterinarian with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association who is part of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program.

“If you have older calves that are breaking with scours, you don’t want them infecting your really young babies that are just dropping,” she says. That’s where the Sandhills Calving System or a similar approach that separates calves by age comes into play as an internal biosecurity practice.

Biosecurity, in a general sense, is keeping diseases off your operation, she says. In her mind, it boils down to all the preventive practices that reduce risk to your animals and improves their health.

“That goes from herd health planning to nutrition to low-stress handling to employee training,” she says.

Biosecurity also encompasses what happens, not just inside the ranch gate but outside as well. Say you buy a new set of bulls or replacement heifers. “You want to quarantine and test, if possible, those animals before you introduce them to the herd so you’re not bringing in new diseases,” she advises.

A robust herd health program is a factor, as well, as you develop a set of reputation calves that will draw bids at the sale. Take bovine respiratory disease. “Prepare that calf in the cow and as a newborn through earlier vaccination protocols,” Welsh advises.

“We know those work. When you start vaccinating a calf earlier against [bovine respiratory disease (BRD)], it has a greater effect down the road. The highest use of antibiotics [in beef cattle production] is against BRD. So anything we can do to prevent that is a good practice.”

Beyond that, deworm your calves. “Worms are a huge drain on the immune system,” Welsh says. “When animals have worms, it drains their energy. They don’t perform as well, number one, and it uses energy by the immune system to fight the parasites. The immune system isn’t available for the rest of the animal as much, so you might get illness that requires antibiotics. So a good, strategic deworming protocol is a big part of a preventative program.”

A total of 91 product applications will fall under FDA’s action. See the “List of Approved New Animal Drug Applications Affected by GFI #263 | FDA” at These are antibiotics the  FDA determines to be medically important in human medicine and where bacterial resistance to antimicrobials is a top concern.

Not all antimicrobials used in food animal production are affected, however. According to Dr. Mike Apley, professor of clinical sciences with the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine, “There are some in-feed antibiotics that remain non-medically important and are currently available.”

The ionophores monensin and lasalocid are two examples. “But if they’re used at the same time as a medically important antimicrobial like tylosin, they have to be authorized to be used through a veterinary feed directive,” he adds.

There’s no doubt the move to make medically important antibiotics available by prescription only will require a change for some beef producers. But the effort is worth it, Welsh says. “Beef producers need to be able to use those shared-class antibiotics in a responsible manner and to continue that for animal welfare,” he says.

“It’s important to understand that the FDA’s action isn’t an effort by the government to oversee animal production practices,” he says. “Not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s to preserve the antibiotics that we have.”