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Branded beef pros and cons

Health and Welfare

With all the terms we are hearing in the beef industry — such as organic, natural, hormone-free, and sustainable — there is no doubt confusion even for producers trying to raise cattle to fit these programs.

Most of these branded or niche programs are trying to differentiate themselves from traditional beef production practices. If as a producer you are interested, get the actual details of the specific branded program and find out the necessary extra work involved, including record-keeping. Finally with the extra record-keeping and potential production losses inherent with some production methods, determine the premium you need to stay in that market. These programs definitely create extra input costs and there can be higher returns, but what is the net profit at the end of the day for you?

There can be good and bad aspects in these programs from a veterinary perspective. You as the producer have the final decision as to whether marketing into the branded program will benefit your herd and its bottom-line.

Antibiotic free

Some of the more rigid programs call for antibiotic-free cattle and that means just that. If antibiotics are used for some treatment during the calf’s life then that calf is out of the program. All medical treatments whether prophylactic, metaphylactic or for actual medical cases are usually considered the same. This eliminates all antibiotics in the feed as well as prophylactic treatments. Meat withdrawal periods have been established for all these products which producers adhere to so the product is still safe.

The antibiotic-free programs cater to the public perception that antibiotic usage is undesirable. Technically all raised beef is free of antibiotics if proper withdrawal times are recognized. The authorities in Canada place products such as rumensin, an ionophore, in the same category as antibiotics even though there are no meat withdrawal limitations.

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Not being able to use a product such as rumensin in a feeding program worries me as we could see increases in conditions like coccidiosis in cattle and of course, feed efficiency is decreased as well.

The good thing about this program is that without reliance on antibiotics it instills the maximum use of good quality vaccines to prevent disease and a soft or fenceline-weaning program done at home to reduce mainly bovine respiratory disease in recently weaned calves.

The antibiotic-free requirement follows through to the packer so if any medication is given in the production chain where necessary the calf again drops out of the program.

Animal welfare needs are often addressed in these programs calling for use of treatments such as painkillers given at castration and other procedures. These also have a withdrawal period that must be adhered to. My one worry is about delay in treatment. If antibiotics get held off for a day or two extra to see if the calf gets over the problem, it could lead to more deaths or chronic cases. Only the individual producer would know if that has happened. When a calf drops out of an antibiotic free program they are marketed as a normal calf.


Some programs insist on a true preconditioning program that means a minimum period between weaning day and marketing day — 30 to 60 days is common. This of course has great benefits in the feedlot as calves on a good vaccination program and weaned for that length of time are much less likely to get sick. Also by waiting the 60 days or longer, calves are gaining very well so this results in more pounds to sell. Shrink is minimized then on transport.

Speaking of transport that can be a big win as with these branded programs calves are most often shipped directly to their final destination also minimizing extra transport costs and stress of going through an auction market. Both of these are great management wins.

In the old days, the best returns for the cow-calf operator were generally to wean right off the cow with no vaccines or input costs incurred by the cow-calf operator. From a health, stress and shrink aspect, this is the worse thing you could do to this young calf. These calves were considered by most veterinarian standards high risk to ultra high risk depending on their weight and distance transported.

No added hormones

“No added hormones” primarily refers to no implanting. This decision must be looked at from an economic standpoint. Every time a male calf is implanted after castration or a heifer calf implanted there are extra gains created without a doubt.

All implants have a zero withdrawal for slaughters so are very safe. Calves can receive implants up to three to four times until slaughter. This depends on how young calves are implanted and target weight at marketing.

Every time an implant is not given, pounds of gain are lost. This is fine as long as in these HF (hormone free or no added hormones) programs the selling price more than compensates for this loss. A lot of producers of course don’t implant their heifers so they would fit the program anyway and if bull calves are castrated at an older age you get the gains from their natural hormones. Castration at an older age comes with a bit more risk and if we follow the beef code of practice in the future NSAID’s (anti-inflammatory) drugs will need to be given.

All these conditions need to be considered. The HF programs are a specialty market and one that consumers think they want.

I won’t go into detail on the proven safety of implants here, but it all comes down to economics and what premium the producer will get from not implanting. I have heard some say by not implanting they need an extra 20 per cent return in order to make up the net difference that implants provide.


All these programs rely on the RFID tags traceability and documentation of records showing what treatments have been given to the cattle. Again this requirement enhances management and attention to detail.

As far as anthelmintics (dewormers), most are allowed in most of the programs — even the organic ones — as long as proper withdrawals are adhered.

Each program is different so always double check. Once treatment is done, it may be too late to go back.

Without the treatments for internal and external parasites including warbles there is no doubt we would have a high infection rate and reduced productivity as a result, so it is important they remain in treatment protocols.

Improved management

The branded programs have been good in the fact producers’ management has been heightened. In other ways, especially the “no added hormones” requirement, can result in productivity losses.

There are pros and cons in all “branded beef” type programs, but they all help to increase the profile of beef and expand markets. The future will tell how sustainable they are in the long term and whether there is the need to change requirements to reflect the best needs of the cattle and still get the producer the returns they deserve.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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