meet the dairyman

Washington's One Health working group visited Coulee Flats Dairy in Mesa, Washington to understand how antibiotics are used on a dairy. Learn about how dairy farmers like Case VanderMeulen do what they can to prevent the need to use antibiotics whenever possible.

Coulee Flats Dairy

Over 200,000 cows thrive on about 480 dairy farms across Washington. They thrive because the climate and conditions, particularly in eastern Washington are ideal for keeping cattle healthy and productive. And because our local dairy families and the people who work on them have that patented northwest passion for what they do. Not unlike our local tech, healthcare and business leaders, dairy farmers tap into years of experience and the best science and technology available in an effort to set a high standard and be the best.

This approach is no more apparent than on a visit to Case VanderMeulen's Coulee Flats Dairy near Mesa, Washington. The dairy is home to 6,000 cows. By any description, it's a large dairy. And by any measure, it is a family owned and operated farm. VanderMeulen, a Dutch immigrant runs the dairy with his wife and son, a core team of experienced managers and employs about 80 people to take on the work of operating the dairy and caring for the cattle. The family lives about a quarter mile up the coulee, with a view of the cows and dairy farm landscape.

A top priority for everyone involved in raising cattle for beef and dairy products is the safety and efficacy of antibiotics. On this topic, dairymen like Case have common ground with a diverse group of people working to address growing concerns over antimicrobial resistance. To learn more about how antibiotics are used on a large dairy farm, members of the Washington State One Health Antimicrobial Stewardship working group visited Case's dairy to ask questions and get first hand perspective. The One Health working group is made up of healthcare providers, researchers and public health experts representing human, animal and environmental health. 

Prevention is Key

Everything from the balanced feed ration (mixture) cattle eat to the design, bedding and cleaning schedule of the dairy farm is intended to prevent the occurrence and spread of disease in the herd. Case and his team cleared up some misconceptions about common dairy practices. For example, these head gates are open, allowing cattle to come and go to eat as they please (they are never forced or locked in to eat). But they can also be used to hold a cow in place to take it's temperature and check symptoms to determine if it needs to be moved to the hospital pen for more observation or treatment.

There is a natural reluctance to treat cattle with antibiotics because of the cost of the medicine and loss in milk production. Cows that have been given an antibiotic treatment will be milked, but the milk must be discarded. Penalties for milk testing positive for antibiotic residues can put a dairy out of business, so tight records are kept and protocols followed to prevent the milk from contaminating the tank bound for the processor. Cattle receiving antibiotics also cannot be shipped for slaughter until after the specific withdrawal time and the medicine leaves the animal's system. 

Fact Sheet: Antibiotic Use in Cattle

It Starts At Birth

The Coulee Flats Dairy nursery has about 1,500 "calf hutches", the white dome shaped calf housing to accommodate all of the calves born at the dairy. The hutches and pens provide shelter and plenty of room to move around. Individual housing prevents calves from transmitting sickness to each other, preventing the need for antibiotic use. 

The practice of removing calves from their mothers to their own hutch is a research-tested way to lessen cattle stress, infection and injury on dairy farms. Calves receive around the clock care from dairy staff, and get the colostrum they need to have a strong, healthy start at life. Mother cows become part of the milking herd and are protected from udder problems that can arise if a calf does not nurse well, and infections that can pass between mother and calf.

When the cow and calf are separated within 24 hours, the bond has not been established and the separation is not stressful for either animal. Lowering animal stress and potential for infection are proven ways to reduce the need for antibiotic treatment on the dairy farm. 

If a calf has a healthy start at the dairy, it has a positive impact on the animal's health throughout it's entire life cycle. Male calves will be raised to produce beef, and the females will be raised to join the milking herd.

"Teamwork Makes the Dream Work"

This phrase is used by Case to explain his management style and included in the dairy logo. It's also the approach the beef and dairy leaders are taking to address concerns about antibiotic use on farms. Hosting the tour is a big step in collaboration between human and livestock animal medicine to determine ways to prevent antimicrobial resistance. 

Dr. Dale Moore (far right, red sweater), is a clinical professor and director for WSU’s veterinary extension. She is a member of the One Health working group and enthusiastic about the opportunity to show experts outside of livestock agriculture how antibiotic use is managed. She heard feedback from attendees who were “surprised” by the cleanliness of the facilities and enthused by the routine preventative practices. “They didn’t really have an idea that was going on,” Moore said.

Read more about the tour...

More about how farmers and ranchers use antibiotics...

The milking parlor is built to move cows in and out efficiently. After each cow is milked the machines flush and staff wipe teats with clean green cloths that are never re-used, and laundered at high temperature in large washing machines on-site. In addition to producing safe milk products, all of the protocols for milking are followed to prevent cows from getting sick, thereby preventing the need to use antibiotics.

Case and his family love being involved in their community and the dairy community. Animal welfare comes first, and that reminder is the first sign you see when you enter the dairy office, located right next to the parlor. Case gives the credit to his team for the many awards of excellence displayed proudly on the wall.

Did you know?

About 20% of the beef raised in America comes from dairy cattle. Cows that no longer viably produce milk, and male calves that do not have a roll on a dairy make up this part of the beef supply. Much of this reaches our plates as easy, versatile ground beef meals like tasty burgers and tacos.