Antibiotics & Feed Additives

Breakthroughs in fertilizer and pesticide science were echoed by breakthroughs in medicine and animal nutrition. In the process, the structure of livestock production began to change during the 40s.

Penicillin came into wide use in human health during the 30s, and it opened the door for similar discoveries in veterinarian medicine.

In 1943, a microbiologist, named Selman Waksman, was working at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and discovered the next generation miracle drug called “streptomycin.” He discovered the compound in some mold on a clod of earth extracted from the throat of a sick chicken. When they tested the new drug on both animals and, eventually, humans, it proved effective on many of the same diseases as penicillin, and even more effective on a larger list. The new diseases that streptomycin was effective on included tuberculosis, pneumonia, urinary infections, typhoid fever and dysentery. For his discovery, Waksman received the Nobel prize for medicine in 1952.

In spite of the obvious human health benefits, Waksman had actually been working on drugs for livestock, and most of the new antibiotics that developed during this period were used on animals, as well. Streptomycin alone helped wipe out bovine tuberculosis, a disease that was widespread before. It also helped defeat mastitis, an infection in the udders of dairy cattle.

As antibiotics began to be used in livestock herds, farmers and researchers noticed a curious thing – the animals were not only healthier, but they also grew faster on the same amount of feed. Antibiotics were added to the feed of all animals in the herd, whether they were well or ill.

Feed Additives. On a parallel track, researchers were working on improving the feed that cattle, hogs and poultry were being given. During the war, there was a shortage of livestock feed crops, yet the prices for meat were at new highs. So, livestock producers looked for synthetic compounds to supplement their feed. Urea was the first organic chemical to be synthesized, and by the 1930s, it had been recognized as a valuable supplement in feed. Farmers realized that if they spent a little money on urea, they made much more by increasing their meat production. Cattle grew faster. Poultry were much more productive.

After the war, the business of manufacturing animal feed began to boom as more was discovered about animal growth. For instance, folic acid had been shown to be an important nutrient for poultry and animal nutrition in 1946. Vitamin B12 was discovered in 1948 and shown to be an important growth factor.

Dr. Charles Wempe InterviewBy the end of the decade, vitamins, proteins, antibiotics and other nutrients were all available in manufactured feeds or as additives. Manufactured feeds accounted for 23 percent of the market, and the antibiotic additive market alone was worth $17.5 million.

Veterinarian Dr. Charles Wempe has seen the tremendous changes that antibiotics and nutrition have produced in the livestock industry. “Oh, tremendous. Tremendous impact,” he says. “We’ve made great strides also in the nutrition itself. Much more so than we have in human medicine.”

Historically, contagious diseases had limited how many animals could be held in any single flock or herd. Too many animals, and the entire group could be wiped out by disease. Antibiotics changed all of that. Quickly, the size of poultry, swine, dairy and cattle feedlots rose dramatically and per-unit production costs fell.

The twin technologies of better feed and better medicine made huge feedlots and hog and poultry confinement operations.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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