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Feed additives in beef farming

We already talked about how beef farmers use antibiotics to keep their animals healthy. In cattle, almost all antibiotics need to be given by an injection because the rumen microbes (bacteria and protozoa) will break down most of the antibiotics we use in animals. There are a few exceptions, however.

One type of antibiotic that is used commonly in beef farming (and in other cattle farming, too) are ionophores. These medications act directly on the rumen microbes. They change the way the ions (like sodium and chloride) can pass across the cell walls of the microbes, limit the microbes’ growth and reproduction (they are considered coccidiostats), and change the way they use nutrients.

Ionophores are not approved for use in people, and can be very dangerous to animals that are not ruminants. (For example, ionophores can be deadly to horses if they are accidentally given cattle feed that has this medication added.)

Ionophores are used as feed additives on many beef farms. They are helpful in a few different ways. First, they decrease the incidence of disease caused by coccidia. While all cattle (and all ruminants) have “good” microbes in their rumen, there are also “bad” microbes that can cause disease. These “bad” microbes can cause very severe diarrhea that can quickly result in death. By using ionophores as a feed additive, farmers are using these medications as prophylaxis to prevent diarrhea from coccidial diseases.

Eimeria bovis

In addition to keeping the bad coccidia at bay, ionophores also help to keep some of the bad bacteria under control. Ionophores are more specifically active against some types of gram-positive bacteria. These bacteria can cause intestinal disease like bloat in cattle, so prophylactic use of ionophores in feed helps keep populations of these bacteria low and decreases the incidence of some intestinal diseases.

Another way ionophores are helpful is in increasing feed efficiency of cattle. By altering the way the “good” microbes use ions, these medications also alter the way the microbes use nutrients. Remember that the rumen microbes digest the fiber and protein in the cattle’s feed, and then the cattle digest the microbes as their protein source. Ionophores make the rumen microbes less efficient at digesting protein, so there is more available for the cattle to digest. So now the cattle get a double-dose of protein – some of the protein from their feed, and all of the protein from the microbes.

Ionophores don’t completely stop the rumen microbes from digesting protein, but they do change the end products of protein digestion. The same end products are made (different types of fatty acids), but in slightly different ratios. The cattle can’t use all the fatty acids the microbes make in the same way, and ionophores change the ratio in favor of the types of fatty acids that cattle can use for nutrition more efficiently.

And, believe it or not, all these benefits can be accomplished with a very small amount of medication. These medications are mixed with the cattle’s main grain feed at a ratio of 5-40 grams of medication per ton of feed. That’s 0.011-0.088 pounds of medication in 2000 pounds of feed. That’s a big benefit from a very tiny amount of medication!

All the benefits cattle see from the use of ionophores in feed result in healthier cattle that grow better with the same amount of feed. This results in a cost-savings for the farmer (in veterinary care for the animals and in feed costs), and these savings help keep the cost of meat down at the grocery store.

Antibiotics in beef farming

So now that we know what antibiotics actually are, how are they used in beef farming?

When most people think of antibiotics, they think about pills or capsules. In small animal veterinary medicine, we do often use antibiotics in the form of pills, capsules, or chewable tablets.

antibiotic pills

But in cattle things are a little different. Remember those rumen protozoa? Well, they do some funny things to antibiotics, and we can’t use these drugs (or most drugs, for that matter) in an oral form in cattle. So they have to get injections.

antibiotic multi-dose vials

Sometimes we use antibiotics that are also approved for use in people, like Baytril. More often, we use antibiotics that are not approved for use in people, like Micotil and Resflor. In fact, if Micotil is accidentally given to a person it can kill them by causing a heart attack and Resflor may have side effects of bone marrow suppression in people.

Because some antibiotics that are approved for use in animals may have side effects in people, it is essential that farmers keep good records of which animals they use antibiotics in, what date the antibiotic was given, and how much antibiotic was given. The farmers then need to be aware of the withdrawal date and not sell the animal for food before that date. At the processing facility, meat can be randomly tested for antibiotic residue, or the inspecting veterinarian can request testing on the meat from an animal they have reason to think might have antibiotic residue.

If meat from an animal is found to have antibiotic residue, all the meat from that animal is condemned (discarded). The farmer who owned that animal will be subject to citations from the FDA, and may see other consequences such as jail time and not being able to sell any animals for food for people. (This can be devastating for a farmer’s business.)

So why do we use antibiotics in beef cattle in the first place? First and foremost, we use antibiotics to treat disease. Just like people, cattle can get bacterial infections that require antibiotics to treat them.

Antibiotics are also commonly used for prophylaxis, or prevention of disease. In many feedlots, cattle are brought in from many different farms in different areas of the country. Some of these cattle have been shipped in a trailer for many hours. The stress of travel and meeting lots of new cattle all at once can lower their resistance to disease and make them more susceptible to infections, especially pneumonia. When new calves enter a feedlot, most farmers will vaccinate them for the most common respiratory diseases. The problem is that vaccines take up to two weeks to be effective. And in the meantime, the cattle may be exposed to many different bacteria.

Often, when the calves get their vaccines when they arrive at the feedlot, they also get a single dose of a long-acting antibiotic. Remember the hormone implants that release hormone into the animal’s body over a period of time? Long-acting antibiotics are similar, except the antibiotics are in a liquid form and are only released for 2-14 days (depending on the medication). This single dose of antibiotic helps keep many cattle from getting sick, and needing even more medications.

Some antibiotics can also be used as feed additives. I know, I just said that we can’t use antibiotics orally in cattle because of their rumen protozoa. The medications we can use orally actuallyhave a primary effect on those protozoa, and a secondary effect on the cattle. We’ll talk about them next time.

What is an antibiotic?

We’ve all heard about antibiotics, and chances are good that we’ve all taken them at some time or another. But what are they, exactly?

antibiotic capsules

The word “antibiotic” is commonly used to describe medications that kill bacteria, fungi, or protozoa. Technically, this is incorrect. “Antimicrobials” are drugs that kill bacteria, fungi, protozoa, or viruses. Antibiotics only kill bacteria. (Antifungals kill fungi; antiprotozoals kill protozoa; antivirals kill viruses.) Doctors and veterinarians frequently use “antibiotics” and “antimicrobials” interchangeably. For the purposes of this article, I’m mostly going to use the word antibiotic to talk about all these kinds of medications.

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How much hormone are we talking about?

Okay. Hormones are used in some beef farming. But just how much hormone is used? And how does that compare to the amount of hormone that cattle (and people, for that matter) already have?

beef cows

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Hormones in beef

In the last post, we learned about what hormones are and why they are so important for everybody’s every day life. So if hormones are a necessary part of life, why have they gotten so much attention in our food system?

Hormones are used pretty widely in beef and dairy farming. In beef they are used to help animals grow faster. In dairy they are used to help the cows make more milk. We’ll talk about how hormones are used in beef today, and we’ll get into the dairy part later on.

Remember last time that we talked about the hormones estrogen, progesterone,  and testosterone? These are the types of hormones that are used in beef farming. The hormones can be either natural hormones (estradiol, testosterone, or progesterone), synthetic hormones (man-made, but exactly like the naturally-occurring hormone; trenbolone acetate or melengestrol acetate), or plant hormones (zeranol). Different brands will have different amounts and types of hormones. Regardless of the source, the hormones have the same structure and are seen as the same thing by the body.

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What is a hormone, anyway?

Hormones get a lot of bad press, especially when people are talking about food. So what are these things, why do we care, and are they good or bad?

Hormones are basically messengers. They are little proteins that are made by one part of the body, they travel through the blood to another part of the body, and then they tell that part of the body what to do.

For example… Insulin is a hormone. It is made by the pancreas, travels through the blood to all the other tissues and cells in your body, and tells your cells when to take glucose out of your blood and into the cells. The cells then use glucose for energy.

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Beef cattle feedlots

In our last post, we talked about a cow-calf farm. The goal on a cow-calf farm is to have a new crop of calves every year, and to sell the calves sometime around 4-8  months old. Once the calves are sold, they typically go to a feedlot.

The goal at a feedlot is to, well, feed the calves a lot. We want to get the calves to grow to around 1000 pounds to be ready to sell for beef. (Then they are called “finished” cattle.) On a grain-fed farm, this will usually be around the time the cattle are 18 months old.

This steer is just about finished. I took this photo about 6 weeks ago, and he has probably been sold already.

Feedlot steer

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Beef cow-calf farm

Our cattle farm is a cow-calf farm. That means that we have cows that get pregnant and have a calf every year. We sell the calves in the fall, and keep the cows to have more calves. Most cow-calf farms are mostly on pasture. We have cows in two locations, since we have more cows than grass at either place.

I’ve already shown you some of the pastures at the farm that is at our house. Here is the view of the front of our house. (All adult cows here, the calves were weaned and in a different pasture.) All the cows at this farm are registered Angus.

Angus cows at pasture

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It’s not really “pink slime”

There’s been a lot of hype in the media over the last few days about “pink slime” in ground beef. There’s also been a lot of misinformation about the stuff.

It’s not slime. It’s beef. There are two different terms for it, boneless lean beef trimmings or finely textured beef. Both products start and end the same, but have one slightly different middle step. Here’s how we get it.

You know how you’ll get a steak from the grocery store, and it often will have a thin layer of fat around the outside. You “trim” the fat from the steak before you cook it, but usually you take a little bit of the meat off, too. You don’t usually spend a whole bunch of time getting that last little bit of meat separated from the fat, you just throw it away. This also happens at the butcher, but on a bigger scale.

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