THEN & NOW:
It’s all well and good for cattle to be Ful-o-Pep, as promoted in an advertisement in the May 10, 1956, issue of The Western Producer.
But then, as now, beef cattle growth promotants were more about feed efficiency and extra pounds than about animal vigour. And then, as now, some people were leery about using added hormones in beef production, either as feed additives or implants.
Diethylstilbestrol, a form of estrogen used in human medicine, was first distributed as an animal feed additive in 1954 but was later pulled off the market for both livestock and humans because of human health concerns.
Researchers at the time determined that the risk to humans from eating beef from animals given the additive, a.k.a. Ful-o-Pep, was virtually nil.
In similar fashion, today’s beef cattle researchers make the same assertions about hormones in beef from cattle given growth promotants.
Hormone implants became available to the cattle industry in 1956 and have since become widely adopted in commercial beef production.
“I suspect implants were adopted pretty quickly because the apparent advantages in terms of growth rate and carcass weight and feed efficiency would be pretty quickly apparent to people,” said Reynold Bergen, science director with the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Fifty or 60 years ago, it took 10 pounds of feed to generate one lb. of gain on a beef animal. Today, the ration is six to one, partly because of growth promoting implants. Additional factors include improved cattle genetics, improved feed quality and feed processing, and greater understanding about rations.
“Between 1977 and 2007, and the trend has continued, we’ve produced 11 percent more beef from 20 percent fewer cattle,” said Bergen.
“If we took growth promotants out of the system right now, the key number seems to be 10 percent. We would need 10 percent more cattle, 10 percent more land, 10 percent more feed and then seven percent more fuel, seven percent more fertilizer and we would produce 10 percent more manure and 10 percent more greenhouse gases.”
Better feed efficiency and economics were the original reasons for using growth promotants, but Bergen said there are also environmental benefits.
As well, growth implants result in cheaper beef at the meat counter because of lower production costs. Retail prices are eight percent lower than they would be otherwise, according to Bergen’s figures.
Yet there is consumer unease about use of added hormones in beef production.
A study released in November at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture Symposium in Kansas City ranked hormone content in meat as one of the top consumer concerns, above humane handling and environmental impact issues.
Carl Chomistek, a cattle producer in Rolling Hills, Alta., listened to consumer concerns about hormones a few years ago. He stopped using implants in his backgrounding and finishing operation when he received requests for beef with no added hormones.
“We were hoping that by doing that we could extract a tiny bit of a premium out of the cattle that we were selling because I normally sell eight or nine weight (800 to 900 lb.) steers and heifers, March to April,” he said.
“But we weren’t able to get anything extra for that, so in consultation with my veterinarian, he said, ‘you know, you’re throwing $20 or $30 bucks an animal away.’ ”
Chomistek is using implants again, noting his customers didn’t seem to care and the production results speak for themselves.
“My gains last year were phenomenal. We were really, really happy with them. I think (implant use) certainly does make a difference.”
That said, Chomistek would still like to eliminate their use.
The Canadian burger chain A&W launched a campaign earlier this year called Better Beef, advertising product from animals that have not been given added hormone growth promotants.
The campaign raised the ire of Alberta cattle producers because of its implication that other beef was inferior and because A&W had to buy much of its product from Montana and Australia to meet its needs.
Chomistek said it illustrates a problem in the Canadian industry.
“Maybe we producers aren’t looking as far as we should,” he said.
“I think there’s a real disconnect between the cow-calf man, the backgrounders, the finishers, the packers and the consumer.”
Canada’s two large meat packers buy and supply the commodity beef market and aren’t interested in separating implanted cattle from those that haven’t had implants.
That’s why Chomistek is hopeful smaller packers will establish, survive and service what is now a niche market for beef with no added hormones.
Bergen sees consumer unease with implants from another angle.
“I think part of it is that consumers are a lot farther removed from food production than they ever have been before, in North America anyway, and so they don’t know how cattle are produced, or chickens or pigs, for that matter,” he said.
“What I view as a little bit regrettable is, these things have been around for 60 years. There’s absolutely no indication that they pose any harm to human health and there’s real clear benefits on the environmental side and the industry competitiveness side.”
He said consumers will ultimately decide on the future of beef cattle implant use. He thinks the supply of beef with no added hormones will increase because of the pending trade deal with the European Union.
The EU, which doesn’t accept any other kind of beef, will likely want steaks and middle meats, which will leave other cuts and hamburger to the domestic market.
Download a PDF of the original WP page here: 1956_may10_p08