You may or may not heard the popular myth that livestock on larger sized farms are “pumped full of hormones.” But as I’ve previously discussed here, that is not the case. In fact, in poultry and pork, added growth hormones are not even allowed.
When you see a label on a pork or poultry product labelled “no added hormones or steroids,” read the fine print:
*federal law strictly prohibits the use of hormones.
It doesn’t even exist!
The difference, though, is that growth hormones are allowed in beef cattle.
On our farm, we do raise some of our cattle in feedlots, and we have used growth hormones once in a while. If you’re not familiar with the process, it’s basically a pellet that’s placed under the skin of the ear to help them gain weight more efficiently. Let me tell you, it isn’t an easy task. Have you ever tried getting a group of 500-pound animals to do what you want, when you want? Corral them into a chute? Get them to hold still long enough so you can get the pellet in the ear? If you’ve ever tried to administer medicine to your dog or cat, you know it’s not always butterflies and roses. This is much more difficult than that. (And cattle don’t happily come running to you when you call their name.)
Traditionally farmers have used these products to help cattle gain weight, but times may be changing. Nowadays, science and technology have introduced new products as an alternative to growth hormone implants that focus a lot more on nutrition that garners results. One example of this is a product called Epnix by Alltech. I attended the Alltech ONE symposium this spring and heard from Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager who led studies on the product. They’ve partnered with Cactus Feeders (as one example), which is one of the nation’s preeminent feeding groups in the industry and one of the most trusted cattle research institutions. They have a sterling reputation and take research very seriously.
And they’re having success. Epnix is basically a nutritional supplement program that specifically targets every life stage of feedlot cattle and has been in development for about five to six years. It’s an extension of work in nutrigenomic technologies and epigenetics. The product helps improve genetic potential and overall health, while boosting yield, particularly in the ribeye area.
When cattle are healthy, there is an obvious benefit to needing fewer antibiotics, so this is another win-win. Many improvements have been made on modern farms to eliminate or substantially reduce antibiotics, but they are sometimes still needed as an important tool for animal health. Regardless, farmers and ranchers are held to very strict FDA and USDA approved food safety standards, among many other regulations and third-party certifications.
So why do farmers and ranchers use growth promoting products? Well there is an obvious one that bigger gains can sometimes equal greater profits, but more importantly it reduces beef’s carbon footprint. It is said that if we raised beef now the way we did in the 1950s, we would need an area of land the size of Texas to make up for the space we would need to feed them all given the exponential population growth. The ability to produce more beef with fewer resources is an admirable goal, although there are many other factors to sustainably feed the growing demand for beef. Today, to focus on production experts have focused more on reproduction by choosing proper genetics. Just like if your dad was 6-foot-5 and your mom was 6-foot-0, chances are you would be quite tall. Same concept, but there really are many variables in livestock health.
It’s important to remember that there is no nutritional difference between beef that’s been treated with a hormone implant versus one that has not. The hormonal difference within a steak, for example, is a fraction of a billionth of a gram. Everything we eat naturally contains hormones, so you may be surprised that many vegetables actually contain more hormones than beef. Regardless, as a farm family that raises and eats our own beef almost daily, I’m excited to see the future of beef production and products like this that may improve the lives of farmers, ranchers, meet consumer demand, and, of course, help the animals.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.
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