What are Hormone Growth Promotants and are they used in the cattle feedlot sector?

Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) are supplements of naturally occurring hormones used by some grass and grain fed cattle producers to help cattle meet market weight at an earlier age. HGPs have been used in the Australian beef industry for over 30 years and have been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) as safe for both consumers and cattle.  Whilst the EU currently bans HGP use, the WTO has determined that the ban is unjustified and not based on any scientific evidence.

The level of hormones in beef derived from HGP treated cattle is also significantly less than the natural level of hormones found in many other products consumed every day by the general public. For instance a serving of beer contains 7 times the level of hormones as a serving of HGP treated beef – a serving of peas 179 times and ice cream 273 times. Importantly, the decision to use hormones is determined by customer requirements.  Contrary to popular misconception, twice as many HGP’s are sold in the grass fed beef industry than the cattle feedlot sector in Australia.  Around 25% of feedlot cattle in Australia are provided HGP’s.

What are antibiotics and are they used in the feedlot sector?

Antibiotics are used to control infections caused by bacteria and other microorganisms.  In Australia, the overwhelming majority of antibiotics used in the cattle industry are not used in human medicine.  In addition, they can only be accessed by veterinary prescription and must be used responsibly to not only prevent beef export bans as a result of potential beef antibiotic residues but also penalties under the industry’s independently auditable quality assurance program.  Several Government reports over the last decade have confirmed that antibiotic resistance in Australian cattle was nil or extremely low with the most authoritative report undertaken in Australia to date (the JETACAR report3) concluding that resistance is mainly due to over prescription in human medicine.

Nevertheless, Government and industry have instigated a number of measures to limit potential resistance in future.  From a cattle feedlot industry perspective, they include the use of best management practices to improve nutrition and animal health prior to cattle arriving at the feedlot, the development and use of strategic animal health protocols, biosecurity measures to minimize infections; and the prudent use of antibiotics.  The use of low stress stock handling and facilities, minimizing the mixing of unfamiliar cattle, pre yard weaning and vaccination prior to feedlot entry are examples of such practices. Whilst the food safety regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand has determined that microbial loads are low in the red meat supply chain, the industry has also been involved in the development of new regulatory standards to further reduce such loads.   The industry supports increased surveillance and monitoring to help the industry demonstrate that it uses antibiotics prudently and responsibly.

Is grass fed beef more healthy than grain fed beef?

Whilst grass fed beef has a higher level of beneficial Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than grain fed beef, grass fed beef also has a higher level of unhealthy Trans fat. Concentrations of saturated, monounsaturated and total fatty acids are similar between grass and grain fed beef[4]. Notably, beef, whether finished on grass or grain, is not a strong source of Omega 3’s compared to other foods such as fish. Therefore the negligible Omega-3 difference between grass and grain fed beef is unlikely to have any discernible impact upon human health. To put this in perspective, a 250 gram salmon steak has 3.5 times the level of Omega-3 compared to a 250 gram grass fed steak (ie 1125 milligrams vs 322 milligrams)[5][6]. Both grass and grain fed beef are excellent nutritional products which provide a wide range of essential nutrients including: iron, zinc, omega-3s, protein, B vitamins, selenium and vitamin D.

Do livestock produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector?

No. This is a misconception derived from the now debunked 2006 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, Livestock’s’ Long Shadow. A 2010 review of this FAO report by scientists from the University of California (Davis) found that it used inconsistent methodologies to calculate greenhouse gas emissions between the two sectors. Specifically, they concluded that while a complete life cycle analysis was conducted for the livestock sector, it wasn’t for the transport sector thereby significantly underestimating the transport industries contribution. The FAO has since accepted the validity of this criticism. In Australia, according to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, livestock accounts for 10 per cent of emissions, and transport 17 per cent.

What is a cattle feedlot?

A cattle feedlot is a managed facility where livestock are provided a balanced and nutritious diet for the purpose of producing beef of a consistent quality and quantity.

How many of Australia’s cattle population are in feedlots?

At any one time there are around 2% of Australia’s cattle population located in feedlots.

Why are cattle placed in feedlots?

Cattle are generally taken to feedlots for two main reasons. Firstly, Australia’s dry seasons and/ or dry years result in pastures that have insufficient nutritional value to allow cattle to reach customer requirements in a timely and sustainable manner. Notably, cattle require increasing nutrition as they get older and this places greater pressure on pastures and hence the environment. Secondly, customers in both Australia and our export markets actively demand grain fed beef due to the industry’s ability to consistently meet market requirements in terms of quality and quantity (irrespective of seasons or droughts).

Do cattle spend their whole lives in a feedlot?

No. Australian feedlot cattle spend the majority of their lives in an open range grass fed environment prior to feedlot entry. The average period cattle spend in a feedlot is between 50-120 days or around 10-15% of their lifespan.

How much space do cattle get in a feedlot?

Cattle in feedlots are able to roam freely in yards of up to 6000m2 each (i.e. around the size of 14 basketball courts). Whilst legislation stipulates minimum space allowances of 9m2 per animal, lot feeders generally provide around 13-15m2 for feedlot cattle as this leads to improved animal health, welfare and productivity. Such space allows cattle to exhibit all their normal behavioural characteristics as required by the RSPCA. Interestingly, despite the provision of large areas, cattle tend to herd together as they are very social animals. This means that total yard space is often never fully utilised.

How do feedlots ensure good animal welfare?

The feedlot sector was the first agricultural industry in Australia to implement a quality assurance program (the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS)). Not only is this program independently owned and managed to industry, but every accredited feedlot is also independently audited each year to ensure compliance with its standards along with animal health & welfare, environment and food safety legislation. Audit results are provided to a management committee that is dominated by Government representatives.Continuous improvement of this program enables industry to keep abreast of the changing requirements and expectations of consumers, markets, regulatory authorities and the wider community.

Accreditation is compulsory for the supply of grain fed beef to major domestic retailers and the export market. Notably, cattle in feedlots also have specific diets developed by nutritionists that provide all their vitamin, mineral, energy, protein and water needs 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Cattle are additionally supervised on a daily basis, hospitalised if unwell, monitored by highly trained livestock handlers whilst being protected from starvation, floods, fire, droughts and wild animals. Furthermore, lot feeders employ veterinarians to oversee animal health and welfare programs. As a result of these factors, cattle mortality levels are actually lower in feedlots than the average extensive grass fed system.

Why do we feed grain to cattle?

Grain is fed to cattle for a number of reasons. It is highly digestible, meets many of their nutritional requirements, is readily available, easily transported, and can be stored for reasonable lengths of time without major quality impacts. In comparison, unfortunately grass is less digestible, often not available (due to drought or dry seasons) and whilst it can be cut as hay (and hence can be transported and stored) this hampers its ability to meet the higher nutritional requirements of young cattle. Notably, cattle actually prefer a grain based diet over grass as it is higher in nutrition and energy. It is easy to forget that grain is essentially the seed of grass, hence is a natural product that cattle have been eating for millennia.

Even now in many countries, severe winters mean that grain based diets are the main form of sustenance during this time. In Australia, the main grains used in feedlot rations are barley, wheat and sorghum. Notably, the barley and wheat used is generally lower in quality than for human consumption whilst sorghum is used solely for livestock and to a lesser extent, ethanol production. The cattle feedlot diet is formulated by qualified nutritionists to ensure that all animal health needs are met. The diet comprises energy, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins which are obtained from a diverse mix of such things as grain, silage, hay, molasses, oil seed meals and legumes. Whilst cattle require a short period of time to become accustomed to a grain based diet, this process is easily managed by feedlot nutritionists and professional feedlot managers.

Do feedlots produce more greenhouse gas emissions than grass fed farms?

No. Despite the inputs required to produce grain fed beef, feedlots produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than grass fed cattle farms. Why? – Because of superior diets, feedlot cattle convert feed energy into beef more efficiently, reach marketable weights more quickly and hence produce fewer emissions over their lifetime. Australian life cycle research concludes that grain fed cattle produce 38% less Co2 equivalent emissions per kg of beef production compared to grass fed cattle1. This research is supported by international studies. In fact US research has concluded that to produce the same amount of beef, the grain fed production system requires:

  • 56% less cattle
  • 55% less land
  • 25% less water
  • 40% less carbon emissions
  • 50% less manure; and
  • 49% less feed

How does the feedlot sector manage environmental issues?

Beef production is more efficient in a feedlot as there is less land required, fewer cattle needed, less stress placed on the environment and less greenhouse gases emitted to produce the same amount of beef. Cattle feedlot manure is also collected, composted and sold as a valuable soil conditioner or can be used to sequester carbon or produce energy. Any runoff from yards is collected in ponds and also used to irrigate crops.

Despite these benefits, feedlots are regulated by federal, state and local environmental authorities to ensure there is no adverse environmental impact. In addition, the industry’s quality assurance program (NFAS) imposes requirements that are more stringent and encompassing than legislation with feedlots independently audited against NFAS and legislative requirements each year to ensure compliance. The integrity of NFAS is so highly regarded that it is recognised within environmental legislation as meeting the compliance function of Government in several states.

FAQ References

1. Peters et al. (2009) “Red Meat Production in Australia: Life Cycle Assessment and Comparison with Overseas Studies“, Env. Sci. Tech

2. Capper , J. L. (2012) Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-FedBeef Production Systems, Washington State University, sourced from the internet http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/2/127

3. The Joint Expert Advisory Committee on Antibiotic Resistance (1999), The use of antibiotics in food-producing animals: antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and humans,

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/2A8435C711929352CA256F180057901E/$File/jet acar.pdf

4. Ponnampalam, E et al (2006), Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health, RMIT University, Melbourne and Department of Primary Industries, sourced from the internet http://www.seattlecentral.edu/faculty/jwhorley/FatsInBeef.pdf

5. Ponnampalam, E et al (2006), Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health, RMIT University, Melbourne and Department of Primary Industries, sourced from the internet http://www.seattlecentral.edu/faculty/jwhorley/FatsInBeef.pdf

6. Heart Foundation, Q&A: Omega 3-Professionals, sourced from the internet, http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/sitecollectiondocuments/fish-fishoils-qa.pdf


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