As the average consumer becomes further removed from any connection to agriculture, the North American beef industry can be somewhat of an enigma. The complexity of our beef production system, involving multiple stages from the cow-calf ranch to a growing or backgrounding phase and finally through a grain-based finishing period, potentially creates a split personality in terms of public perceptions.

The image of cows and calves grazing peacefully on sunny green pastures makes a nice postcard and probably generates positive reactions from all but the most rabid vegan activist.

But show a typical consumer or politician a commercial feedyard and it would be easy to convince them that cattle feeding is environmentally harmful, cruel to animals or a threat to food safety and quality. And, naturally, activist groups gladly exploit these misconceptions.

We know, of course, that appearances can be deceiving. A closer look reveals cattle feeding as an extremely efficient method for producing high quality beef and also a system that, when managed properly, protects the environment and the health and well-being of cattle.

“The bottom line is that cattlemen sell performance,” says veterinarian Dee Griffin at the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Veterinary Education Center. “Animal health is the number-one issue for performance and quality assurance, and it is in producers’ best interests to provide the best possible care to maintain health.”

Talking points

Griffin notes that over 95 percent of feedlots comply with the industry’s Beef Quality Assurance program. In addition to other management guidelines, this program helps producers understand federal regulations, apply best production practices for the health and well-being of their animals, and protect beef safety.

The use of antibiotics in food-animal production commonly generates misunderstanding and negative perceptions among consumers. Griffin makes the following points about the judicious use of animal-health tools.

  • The federal government is in charge of all antibiotic use in food animals. The industry has permission to use these products under strict controls over dosages, timing and circumstances of their use. 
  • The FDA has initiated a framework for evaluating antibiotics for use in agriculture. This approach for approval considers the significance of an antibiotic for treatment of human disease and the duration the antibiotic is typically used.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conduct national monitoring of human pathogens and their response to antibiotics. There has been no statistically significant change with regard to any veterinary antibiotic in routine production use.
  • Public health officials oversee the antibiotics used to help food animals that require treatment for disease. The CDC monitors the use of these products and reports to the FDA. Animal-health companies also must establish resistance-monitoring guidelines for new antibiotics prior to government approval. To date, the government has found no scientific reason to change the way beef producers use antibiotics to treat animal diseases.
  • Feedyards use ionophores as feed additives. The ionophore products used in cattle enhance performance while helping control coccidiosis, a parasite. The FDA, World Health Organization and European regulatory agencies recognize these as a completely different class of product from drugs used in human medicine.
  • Finally, Griffin notes that beef producers increasingly focus on preventing disease by reducing stress, using vaccines and providing good nutrition. With good management and overall herd-health practices, the need for antibiotic use becomes minimal.          
    Growth-promoting hormones represent another issue of concern for consumers exposed to misleading information. Alex Avery, director of research and education for the Center for Global Food Issues, sets the record straight on hormone safety.
  • There are six hormones approved for use in beef production in more than 30 countries. Three of these, testosterone, estradiol and progesterone, occur naturally. Three others, melengestrol acetate, trenbolone acetate and zeranol, are synthetic versions of natural hormones. Extensive testing has shown all to be safe.
  • Implants release low doses of hormones into the animal’s bloodstream very slowly, resulting in low concentrations of the hormone in the animal.
  • Research has shown that supplemental hormones in cattle contribute little to hormone levels in beef, particularly when compared with those produced naturally.
  • According to USDA, it would take more than 13 pounds of beef from an implanted steer to equal the amount of estradiol naturally found in a single egg. One glass of milk contains about nine times as much estradiol as a half-pound of beef from an implanted steer.
  • Other foods also contain hormonally active chemicals. A half-pound potato has 245 nanograms of estrogen equivalent, compared with 1.3 ng for a quarter pound of untreated beef and 1.9 ng for beef from an implanted steer.
  • An average man naturally produces about 15,000times as much estrogen daily, and a pregnant woman about 9 million times as that contained in one pound of beef from an animal implanted with estradiol.
    While the general public could perceive feedyards as an environmental threat, a closer look shows otherwise. Avery makes these points.
  • While animal agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gasses is small, concentrated cattle feeding actually can reduce environmental impacts compared with other production systems. 
  • Research at Iowa State University showed that producing 1 pound of beef in a grass-fed organic system required five acre-days compared with less than 1.7 acre-days in a conventional grain-fed system using pharmaceutical technology, including the land required to grow crops used for feed.
  • By their very nature, feedyards face challenges in terms of dust, odor and waste management, but they are held to strict federal and state environmental regulations.
  • Specific requirements vary between states, but feedyard operators must submit detailed pollution-prevention plans to their state environmental regulatory agencies.

Walking points

To protect the public image and viability of cattle feeding, managers can take steps to assure they are conforming to established standards and protocols for protecting animal health and welfare, food safety and the environment.

  • Participate in your state’s Beef Quality Assurance program. For contact information, go to www.bqa.org.
  • Go to www.drovers.com for links to these important documents from NCBA and the Beef Checkoff.
    • A producer’s guide for judicious use of antimicrobials in cattle.
    • Quality assurance cattle handling practices, procedures and facilities assessment: A farm and ranch producer self evaluation.
    • NCBA Producers Code of Cattle Care.

Griffin recommends these steps for successfully receiving cattle and protecting their health.

  •  When purchasing commingled, high-stress cattle, make every effort to ensure the cattle are handled with care and shipped as quickly as possible.
  • Vaccinate. Research has shown that vaccination of stressed cattle upon arrival with a modified, live viral vaccine that includes IBR, BVD, PI3 and/or BRSV can reduce BRD incidence and severity.
  • Get all your people involved and committed to animal health and quality assurance.
  • Have facilities, pens, people and a health plan ready when cattle arrive.
  • Commit to making plenty of time to observe and care for animals.
  • Let cattle get to know their caretakers.
  • Select appropriate high-quality products.
  • Evaluate treated animals.
  • Stick to the treatment plan.