Sep 14, 2012


There’s that word again, sustainable, which has a different meaning to everyone. The Sustainable Beef Resource Center (SBRC) just released its interpretation of sustainable, which seems more like a justification for beef industry growth promotants to enhance production. And they do a pretty good job of justifying their use.


Growth promotants include hormonal implants, ionophores, melengestrol acetate and beta antagonists, which is the most recent, also known as ractopamine. Ractopamine has curbed exports to Taiwan markets, with the country just recently allowing it. Hormones have also kept us out of the European markets for decades. The first growth promotants used in the beef industry didn’t turn out so well and it seems that growth enhancing products still get a bad rap from those early days.

But SBRC looks at them from an economic and environmental perspective and reports that they have made our beef industry extremely efficient and competitive and have lessened our carbon footprint. They claim that without the technology, it would require 10 million more cattle in the U.S. to produce the same amount of beef currently produced. It would also require 3 million more fed cattle to be slaughtered, 81 million tons of additional feed, 17 million more acres of land and 138 billion more gallons of water to produce all that beef. It would also produce 18 million more metric tons of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas.

Scientists Jude Capper and Economist Dermot Hays teamed up to evaluate the question “what would be the environmental and economic effects of removing productivity enhancing technologies from U.S. beef production system?” They evaluated two systems: the conventional system we currently use and the no technology system, or NOT. The NOT system would be the equivalent of an 8.2 percent tax on farmers and ranchers and would likely reduce beef production by 17 percent.

The research incorporated all relevant inputs from pasture and feed to electricity and fuel, along with many other inputs that would get a steer to the slaughter plant. They even included the dairy industry in their calculations and, of course, current market values and market share worldwide.

I would have to assume that they are figuring that a steer would get implanted when it’s turned out on grass, implanted when it hits the feedlot, and then receive the beta antagonists during the last 30 days before harvest.

I would like to point out that genetics has done more for the production gains in the cattle business than growth implants. Consider that over 30 years ago in 1980, a dressed steer averaged 708 lbs., and in 2008, a dressed steer was weighing 841 lbs. Last July, dressed steers were averaging 860 lbs. Genetic selections for growth over the years have done more to economize the cattle industry than growth technology.

Breeding technology has been remarkable over the past 30 years and the seedstock industry has done an excellent job embracing all new technology, including DNA. When you can wean an 850-lb. calf and produce a 1,400-lb. yearling bull, that’s about all you need to know. Cattle have been getting bigger and better, and the seedstock industry can take a lot of credit for where we are with cattle weights and efficiency. Trying to find out which genetics can produce more beef with less feed is the new challenge for the seedstock industry.

Not to take anything away from growth promotants, but they are just the cherry on top of the growth track of the modern cattle industry. And cattle feeders are in a dilemma at this point as to where they need maximum performance to have a chance at turning a profit.

There has been a lot of debate over the newer technology, beta antagonists, which are sold under the brand names of “Zilmax and Optiflexx.” The industry can expect some serious consumer debates in the future with these products just because consumers don’t seem to like surprises.

There is nothing wrong with these products and they will be needed to feed the world with quality protein when we have 9 billion consumers on this earth.

The science is sound. Despite that, we will always have a problem with perception being seen as reality.

But it is important to also give credit where credit is due—and that is with the seedstock industry’s production gains. — PETE CROW