Beta-agonists ‘a lifeline’ for beleaguered U.S. feedlot operators

Zilmax and other 
beta-agonists have greatly cut the cost of finishing cattle, but it’s feared a consumer backlash could lead to their demise

Reuters / After nearly a decade of relying on weight-gain feed additives as a lifeline to survival, some of the 75,000 U.S. cattle feed yards that dot rural America suddenly must do without the leading product Zilmax.

Feedlot operators say ‘Vitamin Z’ and other beta-agonists have been a godsend for a struggling U.S. beef industry that saw overall domestic consumption fall more than eight per cent between 2002 and 2011.

“Sometimes it’s the difference from break-even, or even loss, and profit,” said Jhones Sarturi, a beef cattle nutrition professor at Texas Tech University.

The feed yard business may seem simple to outsiders — roughly double the weight of young cattle to around 1,300 pounds with a few months of feeding, and then send them to slaughter. But the economics have become brutal, with the number of feedlots shrinking by one-fifth over the last decade.

Soaring feed costs because of ethanol demand for corn, as well as last year’s drought, have pushed down herd numbers and resulted in feedlot operators and packing houses scrambling to get them. Adding to the industry’s woes, U.S. retailers are reluctant to raise prices in fear of alienating recession-weary consumers, who are willing to shift to less expensive proteins such as chicken and ground beef.

Zilmax and Elanco’s alternative, Optaflexx, have eased the economic pain. Mixed into feed in the weeks before slaughter, beta-agonists can add as much as 30 pounds of salable meat to a carcass.

Still, it’s estimated feedlots lost an average $82 per head in July — the 27th straight month of losses. It’s estimated beta-agonists such as Zilmax and Optaflexx mitigated those losses an estimated $30 or $40 per head.

“It didn’t heal us up, but it helped us,” said Jerry Bohn, general manager of Kansas-based Pratt Feeders.

It’s not clear what happens next.

Merck described its temporary suspension of Zilmax sales as precautionary, saying it’s not aware of any problems since the feed additive was approved in 2006. But although 70 per cent of U.S. beef cattle are given beta-agonists, markets such as China and Europe have banned imports of meat from treated animals.

And the beef industry has learned from the furor over “lean finely textured beef,” which was dubbed “pink slime,” that food concerns can mushroom quickly.

Concerns over another backlash against beef may explain why Tyson and JBS have spoken publicly about their beta-agonist concerns, livestock experts and consumer advocates said.

“Consumers have no idea that these drugs are being used and that they’re being used to the extent that they are in meat production,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington non-profit that is vocal on food issues.

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