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.
The hormones are administered to the animal as an implant. They come in a slow-release pellet and the pellet is placed under the skin on the back of the ear. (Have you heard of implants for women for birth control? This is the same concept.) Depending on the brand, they will release hormone for 90-200 days.
This is a cartridge with hormone implants. This particular type will release hormone for 90 days. The longer lasting implants are a little bigger than these. One animal gets one implant.
This is the device that we use to implant the hormones. The cattle need to be in a head gate for restraint when the farmer or veterinarian is implanting the hormones. You can see where the cartridge fits in the “gun.” The needle is placed under the skin where you want the implant to be, and when you pull the trigger a small piston pushes one implant through the needle. It is a very quick procedure.
The reason farmers use hormones is to help the cattle grow faster. Remember, all cattle have these hormones already, we’re just giving them a “boost.” The animals on a feedlot are young steers or heifers, and they have less naturally-occurring hormone than a bull or an older heifer would. The small amount of hormone in the implant, even though it is not enough to increase the hormone levels in their bodies to what a bull or an older heifer would have, helps them to grow as fast as a bull or an older heifer would.
The biggest benefit of the hormones is that the animals can grow faster while eating around the same amount of food as they normally would. They help the animal’s metabolism so they can use the nutrients in their food more effectively to grow and put on muscle. It also helps them to put on more lean muscle mass instead of more fat. This means we can get more lean meat and lean steak from each animal.
On the other hand, because the hormones make the meat leaner, it means the animals still need to be fed a little extra to get the fat marbling in the meat. Meat is graded by its marbling, so this is very important in beef farming. As it turns out, the farmer can still save money in feed costs by using a hormone implant in his animals. And this cost-savings is passed on to you at the grocery store.