The role of Beta-Agonists increasing beef production

by Jill J. Dunkel

With the world’s population expanding and projected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, there’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about our capacity to feed the growing population. With weather challenges that much of the U.S. is currently facing, the pressure to produce more food with ag’s shrinking share of land mass is an ever-present challenge.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food production must increase by 70 percent. Meat production’s portion of that means the meat industry will need to increase production by more than 200 million tons.

With a decreasing cattle population, how is the beef industry expected to deliver their share of this increase in needs? Pharmaceutical companies argue one way is through increased technology, like implementing beta-agonists.

Two beta-agonists currently on the market in the U.S., Optiflexx (Ractopamine hydrochloride) and Zilmax (zilpaterol hydrochloride) are included in the rations of approximately one-third to one-half of the nation’s fed cattle. By utilizing these products, cattle are producing additional carcass weight and bettering dressing percentages, which ultimately provides more beef per head.

“You drop Zilmax in the bunk for 20 days on steers, and you will average 33 pounds additional carcass weight response,” says Mitch Johnson, Global Head of Beef Marketing and Sustainability at Merck. “We need more beef production per animal. This planet loves U.S.grain fed beef, and these products fit that equation.

Dr. John Scanga, Associate Sr.Technical Consultant with Elanco, agrees that utilizing these technologies is an ideal way to bring more beef to the marketplace. “Our challenge in the innovation industry is to keep bringing these new tools forward. People talk about the growing need for beef and the growing need for food. Technologies that we can bring to the marketplace allow producers to be more productive with their resources.

”Optiflexx, which can be fed 28 to 42 days, triggers a muscle response from that animal, adding approximately 20 pounds of additional carcass weight when fed to steers.

“Beta-agonists are really cool, ”Scanga explains. “They take energy and direct it to lean muscle production.They really have no impact on fat deposition. What you end up seeing is a response in the size of the ribeye area.

”Understanding how to feed beta-agonists is important, as research has shown there can be an impact on quality grades. Once the products are fed, little to no additional marbling will be produced.

“If you really get a response in the ribeye area, basically what happens is you dilute the marbling that’s in that ribeye when you start feeding beta-agonists,” Scanga says.

So learning how to get the most benefit from the products without giving up quality grades is important. Dr. Wade Nichols, Senior Technical Services Manager with Merck, explains they’ve conducted a variety of serial slaughter studies to pinpoint how to feed their product without sacrificing beef quality.

“We’re taking cattle to different endpoints. Some we slaughter early, some just right and some late. Through this, we’ve been able to fine tune our recommendations on feeding the product, ” he says. In many cases, that means extending the days on feed.

By changing the days on feed, feedyards are able to deliver an animal to the packer that meets the quality grade target they have, explains Johnson, while bringing more beef production per animal, efficiently.

“With our serial slaughter studies, we know once we start Zilmax, we are not going to lay down any more marbling. That’s why we are changing the endpoints, or days on feed. We want the marbling as high as we can before we put cattle on Zilmax. If we do that, we can get them to grade almost exactly the same,” Nichols says.

Optiflexx, which was introduced in 2004 is also adjusting recommendations as new information becomes available and markets change. “We came out with recommendations at that time, and that was right back then. It’s still a good recommendation today,” says Scanga. “But with market pressure, increased costs and the ability to move along the dosage range, we are doing some research for feeding at higher levels.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all. It depends on how you market cattle, what the target is for those cattle. Based on that, we can make a recommendation. In some, we recommend a higher dose and in some we are not. If a feeder wants to play the market and wait a week or so, this product gives them the flexibility to do that."

With both beta-agonists, experts say there is a sweet spot for maximizing the return on the product. Regardless which beta-agonist is fed, the technology is increasing the pounds of beef produced per animal.

“The sustainability point is a good one,” says Johnson. For cattle feeders who are interested in their environmental footprint, beta-agonists produce more beef with no real increase in the use of natural resources.To increase beef production in the next 30 years by more than 200 million tons, understanding and utilizing technologies will be critical to feed the world.

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