Beef 911: The pros and cons of hormone-free beef programs

There’s a lot of confusion about these programs — here’s a take from a veterinary perspective

Beef 911: The pros and cons of hormone-free beef programs

With all the terms we are hearing in the beef industry — such as organic, natural, hormone free, sustainable — there is no doubt confusion even for you the producers trying to raise cattle to fit into these programs.

Most of these branded or niche programs are trying to differentiate themselves from the traditional ways of producing beef. If as a producer you are interested, get the actual details of the specific branded program and find out about the extra work in the form of record-keeping that is necessary. You also need to consider potential production losses and weigh that against the premium from that market. These programs definitely create extra input costs and there can be higher returns, but the key is the net profit at the end of the day.

There can be good as well as bad to all these programs and I will try — from a veterinary perspective — to point to some areas you need to watch. You as the producer have the final decision as to whether the marketing into the branded program will benefit your herd and the bottom line.

Some more rigid programs are antibiotic free and that means just that. If antibiotics are used, that calf is out of the program. All medical treatments whether prophylactic, metaphylactic, or actual medical cases are usually considered the same. This eliminates all antibiotics in the feed as well as metaphylactic treatments we see given, for instance, to high-risk cattle entering the feedlot. There have been meat withdrawals established for all these products which producers adhere to so the product is still safe. The antibiotic-free programs cater to the public that perceives antibiotic usage as undesirable. Technically, all raised beef is free of antibiotics if proper withdrawals are recognized. The antibiotic-free requirement follows through to the packer so if any medication is needed, the calf again drops out of the program.

Animal welfare needs are addressed in these programs and things such as painkillers given at castration are often called for. These also have a withdrawal that must be adhered to. My one worry is: will antibiotics get held off for a day or two extra to see if the calf gets over the problem and will more deaths or chronic cases be created? Really only the individual producer would know if that has happened. When a calf drops out of an antibiotic-free program, they are marketed as a normal calf.

Some programs insist on a true preconditioning program — that means weaning for a minimum period of time (30 to 60 days is common). This of course has great benefits in the feedlot as calves on a good vaccination program and weaned for that length of time are much less likely to get sick. Also, by waiting the 60 days or longer, calves are gaining very well so this results in more pounds to sell. Shrink is minimized then on transport.

Speaking of transport, that can be a big win as with these branded programs calves are most often shipped directly to their final destination, minimizing extra transport costs and stress of going through an auction market. Both of these are great management wins.

In the old days the best returns for the cow-calf operator were generally to wean right off the cow with no vaccines or input costs incurred. From a health, stress, and shrink aspect, this is the worse thing you could do to this young calf. These calves were considered by most veterinarians’ standards high risk to ultra-high risk (depending on their weight and distance transported). Now there are electrolyte solutions which when given before shipping can minimize stress even more.

No added hormones primarily refers to no implanting, and must be looked at from an economic standpoint.

Every time a male calf is implanted after castration or a heifer calf implanted there are, without a doubt, extra gains created. All implants have a zero withdrawal for slaughter and so are very safe. Calves can receive implants up to four times up until slaughter. (This depends on how young calves are implanted and what size they are fed to.)

Every time an implant is not given, pounds of gain are lost. This is fine as long as the premiums in these hormone-free or no-added-hormones programs compensate for this loss. Some say that by not implanting you need an extra 20 per cent return in order to make up the net difference.

The branded programs have been good in as much as producers’ management has been heightened and specific vaccination programs implemented. In other ways, especially no added hormones, there are productivity losses. Again it is a question of whether the compensation is adequate as we know pounds of gain are being left on the table. But what if the rules keep getting more stringent and these programs don’t become sustainable?

The removing of monensin and other ionophores — because they are considered an antibiotic — can really raise havoc if a coccidiosis outbreak ensues.

I hope this article objectively shows some of the pros and cons of the branded programs out there.

They all help to increase the profile of beef and expand markets. The future will tell how sustainable they are in the long term and whether there is the need to change requirements to reflect the best needs of the cattle and still get the producer the returns they deserve.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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