Risk factors for antimicrobial use in veal calves and the association with mortality

J Dairy Sci. 2019 Jan;102(1):607-618. doi: 10.3168/jds.2018-15211. Epub 2018 Nov 8.


The intensive use of antimicrobials in the veal industry is heavily criticized, but drivers for antimicrobial usage (AMU) are still poorly understood. The industry fears that a drastic reduction in AMU would increase mortality, creating an unacceptable welfare issue. The objectives of the present study were to identify risk factors for AMU and to explore the relationship between AMU and mortality. A retrospective cohort study was performed on the antimicrobial registration data from the largest Belgian veterinary veal practice. The data set contained 295 production cycles from 78 farms, representing 146,014 calves and 8 veal companies (also called integrations). The average AMU was 32.3 defined daily dose animal per year (standard deviation: 11.04), of which 76.2% was administered orally and 23.8% parentally. The AMU remained stable between 2014 and 2016 with only a slight, but significant increase in total AMU between 2015 (31.0 defined daily dose animal per year, standard deviation: 10.5) and 2016 (35.1, 10.8). Use of almost all antimicrobial classes decreased over 2014 to 2016; however, use of long-acting macrolides, doxycycline, and aminosides increased significantly. Analysis identified breed (higher use in beef calves compared with dairy and crossbreeds), month of arrival (lower use when arrived in April or May compared with winter months), and veal company as risk factors. The veal company not only significantly affected total AMU, but also affected the majority of the antimicrobial classes. Additionally, breed differences were present for oxytetracycline, colistin, and classic macrolides, and a month effect was present for doxycycline only. These data illustrate that this veterinary practice realized a reduction of 46% in total AMU and of 96% in critically important antibiotics (fluoroquinolones, cephalosporins of the third and fourth generation) compared with the Belgian benchmark from 2007 to 2009. Replacement of critically important drugs by an increased use of long-acting macrolides is worrisome. Mortality risk was very low compared with benchmarks referenced internationally and did not increase with decreasing AMU. Use of trimethoprim-sulfonamides was a risk factor, whereas use of oxytetracycline was a protective factor for mortality. The absence of a relationship with mortality at the current levels of AMU suggests that a further rational reduction is possible. Attention should be paid to consider different AMU benchmarks for different breeds and to include the veal company as a target for antibiotic awareness campaigns.

Keywords: benchmark; breed; integration; welfare.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Infective Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Anti-Infective Agents / adverse effects*
  • Belgium
  • Cattle
  • Cattle Diseases / mortality*
  • Cattle Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Cephalosporins / administration & dosage
  • Cephalosporins / adverse effects
  • Cohort Studies
  • Colistin / administration & dosage
  • Colistin / adverse effects
  • Doxycycline / administration & dosage
  • Doxycycline / adverse effects
  • Farms
  • Fluoroquinolones / administration & dosage
  • Fluoroquinolones / adverse effects
  • Hybridization, Genetic
  • Macrolides / administration & dosage
  • Macrolides / adverse effects
  • Male
  • Oxytetracycline / administration & dosage
  • Oxytetracycline / adverse effects
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Cephalosporins
  • Fluoroquinolones
  • Macrolides
  • Doxycycline
  • Oxytetracycline
  • Colistin