Growth implants provide increased efficiency
“Growth technology has been used in the U.S. since its introduction in the 1950s,” says Daryl Tatum of Colorado State University of the use of beta-agonists to increase growth potential in beef cattle.
“That first one has since been banned, but several other very similar growth-enhancing products – estrogens primarily – were introduced during the late 1950s and early 1960s and are still in use today,” he continues.
He adds that, in the late 1980s, trenbolone acetate, a synthetic androgen, was first used to enhance growth in cattle.
“That is a very potent growth enhancer, and, shortly after its introduction, in the early to mid-1990s combination implants were introduced, including estradiols,” explains Tatum. “It was a pretty big step forward in the technology arena, because it had a big effect on growth and weight numbers.”
He says the most recent growth technology was introduced in the early 2000s – the beta-agonists.
“When you look at total beef production plotted against number of cows, you can see that, as we’ve introduced these technologies, they’ve become more effective and production has gone up. Technology has had a positive affect on growth,” notes Tatum.
He adds that, as beef numbers are taken apart and individually examined, a more revealing picture of what’s happened in production can be seen.
“I’m talking about total pounds of beef produced in the U.S., compared to total numbers of cattle. From 1950 to 1975 there was an increase in production right along with an increase in numbers. From 1975 forward, numbers declined fairly dramatically. However, pounds of beef were maintained, and then increased, over that same period of time. I don’t want to attribute all that growth to technology – some is genetics and other factors – but, what I would say is that sustaining that amount of growth with that decline in beef numbers would not be possible without the use of technology – it’s just that simple,” states Tatum.
“Growth technologies have had a major impact on what we’ve done. Today we produce twice as much beef with essentially the same number of cows we had in the 1950s, when these technologies were first introduced,” he says.
The greatest impact of growth promotants has been in the production sector of the industry. A 2001 study attributes an increase of roughly $90 per head to implants.
“In 2007, a study that looked at feedlot technology, including implants, beta-agonists and some other things, showed an increase of $155 per head, and doesn’t include the packer and retail sectors. As you go forward into the beef chains there are some positive affects in terms of carcass yields, and so forth.
“But, there are also things that some people are concerned about. The primary concern we hear is that the use of beta-agonists and growth promotants has a lot to do with carcass weight and size, product quality in terms of marbling, and also tenderness. Consumer perceptions, and their perceived differences in food safety, and perhaps animal welfare and well-being, are other issues. There is also the possibility of some negative impacts on market access, both domestically and internationally, and that could impact demand long-term,” says Tatum.
“Lots of people get wrapped up in the word ‘hormone,’” comments JBS Five Rivers Nutritionist and Manager of Research Tony Bryant, Ph.D. “A hormone is just a chemical messenger. Vitamins D and A are also natural hormones, and people lose track of that when they hear the word ‘hormone.’”
Bryant adds that JBS Five Rivers has a variety of programs, and associated market values, for both non-implanted and implanted cattle.
“Typically the non-implanted cattle are also age- and source-verified, and carry that premium. The ‘natural’ market is a little smaller, and we definitely play in that arena of consumer choice. We try to supply beef needs for a variety of consumers,” notes Bryant.
Of the different choices producers have when selecting an implant, Bryant says they’re all FDA-approved. The major considerations for implants include plane of nutrition, sex, age and weight. Growth in general and response to implants requires protein and energy, so cattle on grass are typically on a lower plane of nutrition. Consequently, cattle on grass and younger animals need a less aggressive implant to match the animals’ daily energy and protein intake, he says.
“The implant choice also depends on the person’s marketing program and what grid they’re ultimately marketing into. Some producers can get too aggressive in the number of times they give implants, and that can decrease quality grade. Some grids are very quality driven, and over-implanting would be a concern there. Some grids are yield-driven, and a decrease in USDA Choice grade may not be a factor,” comments Bryant.
“For feedlot cattle, the most recent advance has been the introduction of delayed-release implants. This has reduced the number of times cattle have to go through the chute, and hence can decrease stress for the animals, as well as labor costs,” he says.
“There’s no question carcass weights continue to increase. But, with a declining cowherd, it is challenging to keep up with consumer demand while also keeping beef affordable for all that want to consume it. We have fewer people coming back into the business, and without those people we need increased efficiency, which can also benefit the environment,” says Bryant. “That said, we believe consumers vote with their dollar, and our goal is to provide a broad product basket to meet those diverse demands derived from both implanted and non-implanted cattle.”