Tech in beef industry |

Tech in beef industry

Ivan Rush
Professor Emeritus
University of Nebraska

The beef industry received word from Tyson Fresh Foods that effective Sept. 6 they will no longer buy finished cattle that have been fed a drug called Zilmax. Their letter stated that some cattle had been received at the plant that were lame or in some cases down on the truck. They did state that the reason was unknown however some animal health officials had suggested that Zilmax may have been a contributing factor. Of course some feedlots are feeding the beta-agonist the last portion of the feeding period to significantly increase growth, most of which was lean or muscle growth to increase profitability – or cut losses.

I feel this has raised some interesting questions and concerns. I have questioned for several years who will dictate to the beef industry what practices can be used in cattle production, FDA (Food and Drug Administration), or the government or the purchaser of the product, in this case Tyson Foods. Zilmax, a feed addative had undergone rigorous testing by scientists, reviewed and finally approved by FDA. Of course no beef producer that cares about the welfare of the animal or the quality of the beef produced, will feed something that adversely affects either of these areas. So did the scientists and FDA miss something? I would be interested to know the evaluation and trace back of these cattle – has the percentage of the lame or down cattle actually increased? How much and how long was the product fed? Is it related to size of cattle, the feeding background, feedlot conditions, other feed additives or growth promotants utilized, breed or breed type, other ration components, distance hauled and when were the cattle loaded plus many other factors could be considered.

It will also be interesting to see how and who will pursue the issue, if there are in fact problems. I will find it interesting also to see how feeders and other packers will react. If other packers accept these cattle and feeders continue to use the profitable product will the other major packers get the majority of the cattle fed and will this essentially take one buyer, of an already small marketing options, off the market? Will other packers follow suit? If Tyson does buy less cattle can they fill their kill with their own feeding alliance and captive supply cattle?

As I stated earlier, if Zilmax is a detriment to the well-being of the animal, then it is difficult to support its use even though it was approved by FDA. I must ask what is reasonable to sacrifice in modern, approved technology in the beef industry when we already have stiff competition from other lower priced protein sources? Was McDonalds move to dictate the size of cages for layers a good move and is that an indication as to what will come along for all livestock production? Where and who is giving the food industry input as to what is proper? Does the beef industry have a strong enough voice at the table?

As we look to the future and consider the predictions of population growth throughout the world, it raises questions on how food will be produced. Some continue to stress the needs to go back to the basics and feel many technological advances are a detriment to the environment while others feel we must adapt technology if we will have an ample affordable food supply for the world population. There is no question we have gained considerably by utilizing technology that has been introduced in the past whether it be hybrid crops or improved genetics of livestock. For example, we currently we have 1/3 less cows than 50 years ago and yet produce the same amount of beef.

One of the challenges of the beef industry comes from environmental groups that feel that cattle are damaging to the environment and point to confined feeding or feedlots as the major contributor. The concept of grass fed beef is even promoted by some that are in cattle production, plus it seems many things we hear today stress products that are “green” stretching from energy to protein including beef. Grass fed beef is often touted as utilizing “green” production that is more friendly to the environment and healthier to the consumer. Sounds great until you consider the facts and compare grass fed beef production with intensive production utilizing grain concentrates in the feedlot plus utilizing all the available technologies for growth and feed efficiency.

A comparison of finishing cattle on grass versus in a feedlot was recently made at Washington State University and presented at both the annual meeting of American Society of Animal Science and later at National Beef Cattlemen’s Association summer meetings in Denver. The researchers developed a model where grass fed beef was grown at 1.9 lbs per day to cattle in a confined feeding program grown at 3.50 lbs per day.

It was interesting to me to see the great differences in energy required to produce the cattle with the two systems. It required a total of 47 mega joules (MJ) of energy for the feedlot cattle versus 118 for the grass fed cattle or 2.5 times greater for the forage fed cattle. In regards to the “green” concept, the forage-produced cattle emitted three times more methane (149 versus 53 MJ) – not less, for the total growing period. The researchers calculated the total land needed for the two systems and found the grass fed cattle needed 12.8 times more land. Although not published, they would also need more water for the production period. In regard to methane, cattle do emit some methane in the rumination and eruption process however it is such a small part of the so-called green house gases that it is a very low contributor and yet it continues to get a lot of attention from the environmental groups as they point to cattle. The facts are rice fields and rain forests produce more methane than cattle and that is world wide so if cattle in the US didn’t produce any methane it would only effect world methane production around 1 percent.

So when we hear how we need to turn the clock backwards in beef production and get rid of technologies that improve efficiency of beef production, that lowers the cost of beef to producers, we need to ask which few producers will be left and which few consumers will eat Beef. Let’s not let it be “Beef, its what used to be for dinner.”

Editor’s note: I asked Mr. Rush to clarify some of his data and he generously shared some additional details:

You are correct in that the energy expended by the grass fed animal is not a great factor on a daily bases, although is higher than a confined animal – just because they have to travel farther distances in a day – but there are two major factors concerning energy utilized in the systems. The grass fed animals require a longer period of time to reach slaughter weight and in her model she harvested the grass fed animal at a lighter weight resulting in less product produced over a period of time. As far as energy utilized to produce a product it assumes all energy utilized in the production of the beef product which includes energy from the grass or forage consumed. Yes, it is solar energy but never the less it is energy and in theory the cattle have to compete for it. Also as you know the energy in grass is primarily cellulose verse starch in corn and the cellulose is considerably less digestible than the starch in corn so is considerably less efficient in converting feed to beef. She did calculate energy utilized from fossil fuel and I believe the grass fed animals required about 25 percent more which surprised me and must admit I did not search out those details. The point I was trying to make is that finishing cattle on grass, as we did 80-90 years ago, will require many more resources – land and grass – if we produce the same amount of beef or if the same land resources are utilized considerably less beef will be produced. F

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