WHILE the appetite for hormone-free beef is on the rise in the US, consumers still appear to favour the cheaper, leaner and lower calorie-beef delivered via the hormone implant process.

This was a clear message delivered by the US beef industry when The Scottish Farmer visited recently. At Larson Farms, in Illinois – where there's a feedlot which fattens around 8000 cattle per year – the system takes cattle from eight months to slaughter in an average of 178 days.

The farm is serviced by two abattoirs within 100 miles of the feeding lot, which between them have a throughput of 3700 head of cattle daily. Most of the meat is sold domestically, predominantly to New York, but there is also high demand from Japan.

The Scottish Farmer:

Farmer Michael Martz runs the beef operation side of Larson farms where he fattens 8000 cattle yearly

The feedlot is managed by Michael Martz, who compared his feeding station to a hotel, with customers revolving in and out of his doors from across the US: “We run a custom lot which is like running a hotel. I keep the rooms (pens) full every night and I have customers who want to feed their cattle with us – they are in it to make money.

“We have 3500 on feed right now and around 1500 are owned by us, the rest come from places like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois. Once we have a customer on our books, they then have the right to keep that pen, so when one group of cattle goes out to slaughter, the customer has the right to refill that pen. I have a waiting list of people wanting to get in here.”

Feedlots like this are popular in the states, where a lot of people are part-time farmers, with average herd sizes of around 40 which is not enough to make a living off of. So, he takes them on at around eight months and finishes them on a mostly grain diet with the addition of harvested foraged and nutrient supplements.

Before coming to the feedlot, they are grazed but once they reach the feeding station, they are kept indoors in sheds until slaughter.

At Larson Farms they have been using ultrasound screening for 26 years to measure the fat and marbling content of their cattle in order to alter their feeding and to determine their finishing point for slaughter. Ultrasound technician, Burt Hueber, scans around 20,000 cattle every year between three feedlots in the area and was on site during our visit.

“Using the scanner we are able to capture an image of the rib eye and this is then analysed on the computer to measure back fat and the level of marbling. These two measurements, along with the animal’s weight, will determine how much longer we need to feed him to get to an optimal point,” he said.

“We want marbling as high as possible without getting the animal too fat or the carcase too heavy. We are aiming for these cattle to gain on average 4 lbs (1.8kg) a day.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Ultrasound technician Burt Hueber scans the cattle to measure back fat and marbling levels 

The US grading system for beef quality falls in to three categories – ‘Prime’ is the best, with high marbling content followed by ‘Choice’ and ‘Select’, respectively, depreciating in quality.

Their beef industry used to produce around 3% Prime but due to consumer demand for high marbling beef, this has risen to around 8%. “We want to make a better animal for the consumer, but it takes a long time to change the beef industry,” added Burt. “It’s three years from conception to slaughter, but change is happening and with this system we are able to create a more desirable animal.”

Part of this process involves the controversial use of hormone implants which is banned across the EU, but there are fears in the UK that a future trade deal with the US could see our supermarket shelves filled with hormone beef.

“Some 98% of cattle in the US receive a hormone implant which improves feed efficiency, helping the cattle gain weight quicker,” defended Mr Martz. “This leads to a better product for the consumer, leaner meat at a cheaper price.

“If I didn’t use them, we would have more backfat on the animal, but instead we produce a better carcase to sell to the slaughterhouse, to then sell to the retailer and finally to go on to the consumer plate.”

The financial return from administering hormone implants well outweighs the cost: “It costs us about $3 to implant an animal and the financial reward is around $15-$20 per animal through feed efficiency. We did look at going hormone-free, but I know a farmer who did it and it almost broke him,” he stressed. “It drops your feed efficiency and there isn’t enough premium production to offset costs.”

Beef specialist, Dan Loy, from Iowa State University, added: “Growth promoters are primarily given to cattle in the form of small pellets placed under the skin in the animal’s ear. These ear implants dissolve slowly over a 100-120-day period and the ear is used because they do not enter the food supply.

“The active ingredients – most of which are naturally occurring hormones – are either oestrogens or androgens. Depending on the age and sex of the animal, implants will improve growth rate from 10 to 20% and decrease the cost of production by five to 10%.”

The Scottish Farmer:

A bullock at Larson farms receiving a hormone implant

He stressed that the implant enhanced muscle growth at the expense of fat deposition and claimed this benefited consumers as implanted cattle will producer leaner beef with fewer calories.

Mr Loy argued that consumers shouldn’t be concerned about the use of hormones: “The natural human production of both androgens and oestrogens is several thousand times the content of a generous serving of beef produced with hormone implants. Also, other common foods are naturally much higher in oestrogen than implanted beef, including eggs and milk."

For those who chose to raise their cattle ‘naturally’, this comes at a cost to producers and consumers, with labelling available on beef verifying that implants have not been used, but 'consumers should be prepared to pay a premium for these products', said My Loy.

While denying that UK consumers should concern themselves with the future prospect of hormone-treated beef entering our markets, Mr Martz acknowledged concerns about the lack of traceability of US beef and biosecurity risks. “This is a tough one! Of all the countries who export meat, the US doesn’t have traceability yet and we need to get there. You go to meetings and other beef farmers say, ‘what’s in it for me?’ They have to pay the cost of putting a tag in and if they all have a tag, what is the point in me giving him a premium for them?”

He revealed that a recent batch of Holstein cattle arrived at his feed lot from 800 miles away in Pennsylvania with no means of tracking their movements. “If we ever had a nationwide problem with disease, then those people who have complained the most for traceability will be the first saying why hasn’t the government intervened,” Mr Martz continued.

“What will drive traceability is your McDonald’s and your Walmart pioneering it – when they say we need to have traceability, then it will happen!”

The Scottish Farmer:

Some of the holstein cattle which have travelled from Pennsylvania

A series of pilot projects in Kansas, Florida and Texas are trying to figure out what is going to work best across the supply chain and what are the challenges in implementing an electronic tag traceability type concept. The US Department for Agriculture’s administrator, Ken Isley's wish is for a future trade deal with the UK.

“Our goal is to export food that has a market in the UK. Production competitiveness is something we are proud of and modern technology plays into that,” he said. “It’s not about exporting cheaper food, it’s about exporting food products which fit with the UK marketplace. US meat products are very popular worldwide, and we want to offer consumers alternative products, so they have greater choice in what they buy.”

If a future trade deal emerges between the two nations then arguably a two-tier system may be created – where consumers could conceivably have the option to choose between locally sourced, naturally raised, but potentially more expensive UK beef; or higher volume, cheaper, hormone beef from across the pond.

Hormone beef fact file:

Consumer concerns regarding hormone beef are often linked to questions over cancer and early puberty in children. In the 1970s diethylstilbestrol (DES), a human hormone supplement was found to be carcinogenic.

Low doses of DES were used as a growth promoter for cattle in the US at that time and it was banned for use in cattle in 1979. In 1989, the EU banned the importation of meat that contained artificial beef growth hormones approved for use and administered in the US.