Ask a Farmer: Are feedlot cattle fed antibiotics and hormones?

An example of a cattle feed supplement providing necessary minerals

Due to a large amount of criticism and misrepresentation of the facts, many people have expressed mixed ideas about what occurs in beef production. I have spent a large portion of my life getting well acquainted with all stages of beef cattle production and have a few thoughts and opinions to share.

Recently, I have started a series of posts describing my experience with feedlot cattle and am addressing your concerns about feedlot cattle, what they eat, if feeding corn harms them, and how feedlots impact the environment.

Today, I will address more about what these cattle are fed and how they are handled, using my experience as a guide.

Are feedlot cattle given feed additives?

We’ve been studying cattle diseases for quite some time and still have a lot to learn

Nutrients are often added to the feedlot cattle ration in micro amounts to provide a balanced diet- often referred to as feed additives. These additives often include vitamins and minerals required to balance the animal’s diet.

Other feed additives are used to enhance growth and promote health. The growth enhancers act at the cellular level to promote efficiency by partitioning energy to muscle tissue growth rather than deposition of fat. The health promoters work by improving efficiency of rumen microbes that digest the feeds and promote a healthy digestive tract. These are not similar to antibiotics used in human populations and do not necessarily act as materials working on the immune system.

These additives are used to make more efficient use of energy from feeds and are completely metabolized in the animal’s digestive tract, leaving no residues in the meat products. If residues were found, the product would not be allowed in the food system.

How often are cattle given antibiotics in a feedlot?

Cattle are treated for sickness no matter the stage of production or type of farm – conventional, organic, or natural. Cattle in feedlots are looked after on a daily basis. Each and every day someone rides through the pens and looks at each animal individually. Animals that show signs of sickness (usually respiratory) were brought to the veterinary hospital where a rectal temperature was taken. If the animal had a high temperature or showed significant signs of illness, they were given antibiotics as prescribed by the veterinarians protocols.

Medicated feed in the bunk for cattle that were having health problems

Sometimes entire groups of animals are given a treatment with antibiotics or other medicines. When cattle entering the feedlot are known to be stressed, have weakened immune systems, come from a mixed background like an auction barn, or other factors that may cause them to become ill, they are considered high-risk. These cattle would be handled delicately when arriving at the feedlot. They would transition to higher-energy feeds slower and receive more forage. If 10% or more of the cattle became sick within a week, they were considered for treatment for the entire group. This often heads off any major sickness, and actually reduces the amount of sickness and antibiotics that must be given later on.

Janeal Yancey, meat scientist and mom from Arkansas, has addressed these concerns about antibiotics and residues in the meat supply. Be sure to stop by her blog and send her a message for more information on the topics.

Are feedlot cattle given hormones?

Feedlot cattle are often given a hormone implant to promote feed efficiency. These are synthetic hormones of the same chemical structure and are of minimal amounts when compared to naturally produced hormones already in the animal’s body. The implants are given in a pellet form, inserted under the skin in the ear so there is no concern for muscle tissue damage or residues. They promote efficiency on the cellular level by promoting lean muscle growth and less fat deposition.

Despite consumer concerns over the use of hormones, there is no threat to meat safety. Hormone implant use has decreased over the last few years and has become more precise in timing and utilization. Nebraska cattle feeder and foodie, discusses hormones and how they are used in her feedlot cattle on her blog.

As all of this happens, we always keep in mind that we are producing beef for families who want safe food

After listening to the concerns and question from many folks, I realize modern food production can be a scary thing. I have spent a large amount of time studying subjects like nutrition and how these products work and still have so much to learn. Discussing these subjects in detail takes a large amount of time and effort.

I am continuing to learn and do understand that there is a time and a place for everything. As we continue to learn and listen, we will also find that use of all technology is not always best, but that does not mean it should be banned. We should embrace the concept of technology and science in food production and learn how it can best be applied to every different situation.

If you have more questions about cattle feedlots, pleases leave them in the comments section below or us the Ask a Farmer tab at the top of the page.

18 Comments

  1. Thank you, Ryan, for including me in your post. This is such an important topic to talk about, and I am thankful to be able to be a part of the conversation.

    All the best,
    Anne

  2. Ryan, I’m even more confused now, LOL. I thought farm use of antibiotics was a pretty big threat in terms of humans developing antibiotic resistance, or I guess I mean microbes developing resistance to antibiotics. That’s per reading of news publications and some scientific groups’ publications. I know the over-prescribing of antibiotics to humans is also a problem. But maybe it’s not that farms over over-prescribing — more that any use poses or contributes to the threat? Sorry for my confusion and I’m not challenging you in any way. Just trying to figure it all out. Thanks! Thanks for your posts as usual.

    1. Kay- I’m sure Ryan will also comment on your post. I read it, and thought I would comment too. While antibiotics are used in livestock on an “as needed” basis, it’s not overuse or abuse of them (as much of what your read would lead you to believe).

      The industry has taken a hard look at the issue, and altered the usages of some forms of antibiotics though. For example with young dairy calves, it was common to feed a moderate level of antibiotics to all calves that were fed a milk replacer (like baby formula) from birth to weaning. However, a couple years ago this practice was altered. It is now acceptable to feed a high level of antibiotics in the milk replacer for up to 10 to 14 days immediately after birth, then it must be reduced dramatically. While this change made management of young calves tougher initially, I think overall it improved overall health and management of the young stock and reduced the overall use of antibiotics to young calves.

      So, while I don’t feel the animal agriculture industry overuses antibiotics, we are continually trying to improve and reduce the use of them in food producing animals.

      I hope answered your question. I’m a nutritionist for dairy cows, and I’d be happy to have future conversations with you on this topic.

      1. Thanks, Robin! I haven’t had time to re-research this, so I appreciate your post. When things quiet down, I’ll do some more digging and let you know the sources I found the info from. Thanks so very much for responding in such a thoughtful manner. Have a great day!

  3. Are the health promoting feed additives comparable to pro-biotics in humans? If these cattle were in a less stressful environment and able to graze on real live green food then perhaps they wouldn’t need so many extras to compensate for what they are not getting. Just an idea.

  4. If all this is true then why does the USDA general report say that 211 antibiotics are found in feedlot produced meat? I am not convinced that feedlot beef is good for people.

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