Conventional beef production doesn’t take a back seat to any of the more trendy natural or organic beef systems in terms of producing a safe, healthy, flavourful, high-quality meat, says an Alberta beef researcher. The question really comes down to how much the consumer is willing to pay.
Dr. Matt May, with Feedlot Health Management Services in Okotoks, Alta., says a study he conducted a couple of years ago shows animal and human health, food safety and quality standards aren’t compromised in conventional beef production. Any differences between animals raised with the proper rates of feed additives and growth implants would be negligible to consumers. However, the big difference he says is in the improved performance of conventional beef over natural and organic systems. His study with nearly 1,000 steers showed about a 100-pound per head higher carcass weight among conventional steers and similarly with about 1,000 heifers about 65 pounds of improved gain per head.
“A percentage of consumers are asking for these production alternatives and it is important that consumers do have a choice,” says May, a beef production specialist, speaking to cattle feeders and consultants at a recent meeting in Lethbridge. “As an industry we just need to be glad they are eating beef. But we also need to be aware that if we are producing for these specialized markets there is a cost. Our study showed while conventionally produced cattle do eat more, there is also a huge improvement in average daily gain and carcass weight — 100 pounds per head is significant.”
May says it is important the beef industry “gets its story out to consumers” demonstrating that conventional beef is produced with healthy, safe and sustainable production practices. There is a small, but vocal element critical of the conventional beef production system and it would be a significant cost to the industry and ultimately have an adverse effect on society, if very efficient beef production technology was lost.
One side of May’s study, funded by the Canadian Agricultural Adaption Program (CAAP), along with industry supporters, evaluated 960 steers. He started with 900-weight animals and over a 100-day feeding program took them through to finishing.
The steers were divided into four different feeding groups. All groups received a basic ration of 90.5 per cent barley, 7.5 per cent silage and 1.9 per cent supplement. All groups also received a vitamin and mineral premix. But then they were divided into four different programs in terms of feed additives.
Along with the basic ration, the “Conventional group” also received Rumensin for improved feed efficiency and parasite control, Tylan, an antibiotic, Optaflexx, a feed additive to increase growth and feed efficiency and Revalor-200 a growth promoting implant.
May also had an “R/T group.” Their ration and mineral program also included the Revalor 200 implant and Tylan antibiotic.
The third group, which May referred to as the “Oleo” or organic group received the basic ration, vitamins and minerals, along with a natural product called Oleobiotec Ruminant — described as a complex blend of plant extracts and essential oils. It is designed to improve feed efficiency, prevent metabolic disorders and regulate digestive microflora.
The fourth group was the “Natural” or control group which received only the basic ration, along with vitamins and minerals.
And the results… overall the Conventional group had the best performance. The conventional steers had an average slaughter weight of 1,451 pounds, while the other three groups were comparable in the 1,355- to 1,364-pound weight range.
The Conventional steers had an average weight gain of 521 pounds compared to the other three groups in the 420- to 435-pound weight range. The Conventional group had an average 850-pound carcass weight, while the other three groups ranged from 785 to 793 pounds.
There wasn’t a huge or significant difference in dressing percentage although the Conventional group was the highest at 58.63 per cent, the Oleo group was next at 58.24 and the R/T and Natural groups were at 58 per cent.
Looking at carcass characteristics, May says there was no real statistical difference — all groups yielded and graded much the same. However, he did note while the Conventional group had the highest percentage of YG1 carcasses, the other three groups had higher rates of YG2 and YG3 carcasses. On the quality side, the R/T, Oleo and Natural groups had a slightly higher per cent of AAA (Choice) grades. The Conventional group had the highest percentage of AA (Select) grades.
May says the yield and quality differences make sense since the Conventional group was fed for lean meat production, while the other three groups produced more fat which influenced marbling. He says the differences were notable but not statistically significant.
“What we saw among the Conventional steers was nearly an extra 100 pounds of meat per head,” says May. “While they did consume more feed they also had nearly a 30 per cent improved feed-to-gain ratio and nearly 21 per cent higher average daily gain.”
On the other side of the project, there were similar results among the 900 yearling heifers fed the same basic ration. There were only three feed groups among the heifers — a Conventional group, a Natural group and an Oleo group. The Conventional group received the full slate of feed technology, the organic group only the Oleobiotech product and the Natural group received only the vitamin and mineral premix.
The heifers were all about 1,000 pounds at the start of the study. The Conventional heifer group had the highest slaughter weight of 1,381 pounds on average, the Oleo group came in at 1,282 and the Natural group at 1,279 pounds. The Conventional heifers gained 378 pounds, while the Oleo and Natural groups were 279 and 275 pounds, respectively. Overall the Conventional heifers had about a 65-pound weight increase over the other two groups.
The yield and carcass quality results showed similar results as was found among the steers with similar, but not significant variances.
May says the research tells him that all systems work, but the conventional beef production system is the most efficient. He points to the results of consumer surveys which show when it comes to beef, 95 per cent of consumers are first interested in flavour, next in cost and third in nutrition. He also pointed to his own personal in-store comparison-shopping where one large retailer had organic ground beef priced at $17 for a 1.8-kilogram package, while the next display case had conventional ground beef for $7.59.
“Consumers should have a choice when it comes to their food,” says May. “But they also need to know that conventional meat products are a safe and healthy choice. From the producer perspective, if we are producing for these specialized markets we have to realize that the cost of production is higher. In terms of the long-term environmental and economic sustainability of the beef industry, it is important that we are able to use the range of production technology that is available.”
— Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews based in Calgary and a contributor to Canadian Cattlemen.