Category Archives: Feedlot

Ask A Farmer: Use of Antibiotics in Cattle Feedlots


Antibiotic Use in Livestock and Resistance
Image via: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

Last week, I brought forward some Food For Thought on the issue of antibiotic use in livestock. The concerns surrounding an increase in antibiotic resistance seem to raise a lot of emotion and controversy around our food supply, just as the use of other feed additives, chemicals, herbicides, and countless other technologies and applications of science. I have addressed some of these subjects as they relate to beef cattle production in my Ask A Farmer series.

When I asked others involved in livestock production to share their experience with the use of antibiotics, I had a few replies. Andrew Goodrich was one of the first to respond with a lengthy answer, so I will share some of his responses. We haven’t agreed during more than a few conversations online, but I have to respect his experience in the field. Andrew has worked on several cattle feedlots in the Northwest and Canada and has a first-hand point of view on how antibiotics are used in cattle production.

I have spent much of my life doing business with and working in the cattle feedlots, as explained in many previous posts, but I think it will be good to share another perspective from someone else involved in the business.

Are feedlot cattle given antibiotics through their feed?

Ionophores are probably the most commonly used. You will find them in yards that feed 100,000 head and yards that feed 50 head. They are growth promotants, but the advantages to animal health are often overlooked. They prevent bloat and acidosis. Both of these events happen incredibly fast and are often fatal to cattle. The worst wreck I’ve ever experienced happened when 5,000 yearlings were put on hot ration without monensin. In the end, we lost 50 animals to grain overload. Ionophores also prevent coccidiosis, which can be detrimental to an animals and performance.

Ionophores are classified as an antibiotic, but they are not therapeutic antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is an increasing concern in public discourse. However, the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of ionophore use is not well supported for a number of reasons: ionophores have never been (nor are likely to be) used as antimicrobials for humans and ionophores have a very different mode of action from therapeutic antibiotics. Read more from University of Florida.

Medicated feed (Chlorotetracycline; CTC) is another tool we use to treat cattle. We can use it to extend antibiotic coverage in fresh calves, treat illness associated with ration transitions, and to aid in the treatment of a large number of sick animals at any time during feeding period.

Do all cattle in the feedlot receive CTC medicated feeds?

In some yards, all cattle receive CTC. It really depends on the type of cattle, time of year, and how an outfit decides to use it. When I worked in Washington, all cattle received it once as they went through the ration transitions. If at any time during the feeding period we noticed excessive coughing and nasal discharge, we would use CTC again, as well as exercise to turn them around.

Do feedlot cattle receive any injections of antibiotics as a preventative measure?

antibiotics fed to cattle in a feedlot
CTC medicated feed additive in the bunk for cattle

Antibiotics are also used for the prevention of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). Cattle are prey animals and incredibly stoic. They survive by hiding illness from anything the perceive as a threat. Combine this with a lack of pen riders, and the need for metaphylaxis on arrival becomes very necessary. In our yard, all high risk fall and winter placed calves receive tulathromycin on arrival to help get them through the most stressful time of the feeding period.

What do you mean by “high risk” cattle?

We define high risk calves as freshly weaned animals sourced through a sale barn. They are stressed from weaning and are exposed to bacteria and viruses from many different operations. These are prime conditions to create a sick animal.

When do feedlot cattle receive antibiotic treatments for sickness?

The last way we use antibiotics is for individual animal treatment. This could be for anything from BRD to footrot or acidosis. In our yard, sick cattle are pulled by cowboys and brought to the hospital, where we use a thermometer, stethoscope, and visual assessment to diagnose and determine the severity of an animals illness.

How do you determine which antibiotic treatment feedlot cattle receive?

We also use diagnostic trees to pinpoint lameness in the animals. After the appropriate antibiotic is administered, the animals either return to their home pen or stay in a recovery pen, depending on their condition. We have about 10 different antibiotics in our selection, although about 90% of critters respond to one treatment.

What is the maximum number of times an animal will get treated with antibiotics? When do you decide to stop treating the animal?

cattle feedlot antibiotics
Fresh cattle in a feedlot often receive a lot of hay/roughage. Antibiotics isn’t the only method used to keep animals healthy. Mostly it is wise management.

Typically, an animal will receive no more than 3 or 4 treatments (only 1% of animals ever get to this point). However, if we think the animal will respond and improve, we will treat as many times as necessary. When we hear consolidation and referred sounds in the lungs, an animal is determined to be chronic and treatment is either ceased or altered, depending on treatment history, condition, and amount of consolidation in the lung.

Cattle feedlots are the last step in beef production before slaughter. How do you make sure antibiotics do not end up in our beef supply?

Regardless of how an animal receives antibiotics, they are entered into the computerized record keeping system. This helps administer the proper dosage, track an animals progress, and observe proper withdrawal times. Every antibiotic has its withdrawal right on the bottle. We enter it in the computer and every time an animal receives treatment, its “clear date” is displayed on the treatment, movement, and shipping programs. Before a pen is harvested, we check withdrawals and remove any animals if necessary.

One last question. I often get the response of “Well, if you didn’t have these animals in such a crowded place, they wouldn’t have to receive antibiotics.” How would you respond to someone saying that?

I love cattle, but they are one of the most poorly designed creatures on the face of the Earth.  A vet once described them to me as a car with 4 engines and one radiator. There will be animals that get sick and require antibiotics regardless of where they are. Also, land is valuable and scarce. Around here, 160 acres goes for 1.4 million dollars. We can produce much more protein sowing that to corn or barley and feeding that to cattle than we could turning cattle out on that land.

cattle feedlot antibiotics
The ultimate destination for cattle in feedlots is the beef slaughter plant. We take that responsibility of producing safe beef very seriously.

I hope that Andrew’s insight has given you a glimpse of the complexity that goes into taking care of cattle in a feedlot. It is important to note that many conditions seen inside a feedlot (CAFO) are also seen when cattle are raised on pasture. As a person who has been there and worked alongside feedlot pen riders and veterinary crews, it is not an easy task and is hard work in all the weather elements mother nature brings. Taking care of their cattle is also first priority among most of these men and women and I cannot even begin to understand some of the misperceptions and hatred that exist toward the folks who dedicate their lives to raising cattle for our beef supply. The feedlots are the last step in raising cattle for beef prior to slaughter and a sector of the business which is underrepresented in food dialogues occurring today. Thank you Andrew for sharing your experience with us.

Do you have questions about antibiotics, feed additives, or any other aspects of livestock production? Feel free to leave a comment below or send me a private message through the Contact page.

Are you a livestock producer? When was the last time you took the opportunity to share your experiences on using antibiotics or other tools in livestock production? Please, send me a note or an entire guest post. I am more than willing to share your experience with my readers.

Ask a Farmer: Beta Agonists and Cattle Feeding


Feed ingredients in cattle diets vary between each and every farm and they are all used for a specific reason. This summer, a few questions have been raised about one particular feed ingredient, a beta agonist called zilpaterol. I want to share some educational links on the topic. We all have a choice of what feed ingredients to use and consume, and I respect that right for each and every person. The views are my own, and I only wish to add an informational voice to the conversation.

cattle feedlot beta agonist zilmax feed additive
Cattle eating from a typical feedlot feed bunk. Image via Colorado State University

Earlier this month, Tyson Foods announced that as of September 6, Tyson will no longer purchase cattle that have been fed Zilmax, (zilpaterol), a beta-agonist by Merck Animal Health. According to a letter sent by Tyson to cattle feeders, the suspension will remain in effect until further notice. Tyson cited animal welfare concerns, including lameness, as reason for the change.

In response to the suspension, Merck Animal Health announced a Five Step Action Plan for how they are responding to the questions. The Action Plan includes certification and training efforts for cattle feeders using the Zilmax feed additive, a scientific audit to determine potential causes of lameness and mobility issues, reinforcing appropriate management practices for feeders, formation of an Animal Health Advisory Board, and being transparent with the findings from the event.

Merck Animal Health has since suspended sales of Zilmax until findings are evaluated and a definitive cause for claims of animal lameness are determined. Zilpaterol is one of two beta agonists used most commonly in finishing livestock. Ractopamine (marketed by Elanco Animal Health as Optaflexx for cattle and Paylean for swine) has not been the target of any animal welfare concerns.

What are Beta-Agonists?

Beta-agonists are FDA-approved animal feed ingredients that help cattle be more efficient in gains during the finish feeding period. When cattle are young, their nutrient intake is directed at building muscle, but as they age, they begin to put on more fat. Beta-agonists help cattle maintain their natural muscle-building ability, resulting in the leaner beef that consumers demand.

Cattle fed beta-agonists in the last few weeks prior to harvest, gain an estimated 30 more pounds of lean meat versus fat. This translates to an estimated 780 million pounds of additional beef from the same number of animals across the U.S. cattle feeders.

How are cattle feed additives used safely?

Extensive research shows that beta-agonists are metabolized quickly by cattle so they are not stored in the body and therefore are not present in the meat. Beta-agonists are approved for use in the United States, Canada, Australia and two dozen other countries across the developed world.

Nutritionists and veterinarians are consulted prior to the use of beta-agonists in the diet of cattle and determine if the use is necessary. There are several factors that guide this decision, including type of cattle, condition of cattle, customer expectations, such as yield and quality grades, as well as leanness, weather or seasonal conditions. Environmental goals of the operations are also considered because cattle fed these feed ingredients need less grain, which reduces the farm’s demand on natural resources.

Industry members and scientific researchers are continuing work to understand any possible correlation between the use of beta-agonists and reported animal welfare issues.

There are several academic, peer-reviewed research articles addressing the use of feed additives like beta agonists. Spend some time on Google Scholar to find more.

Learn more about cattle feed additives

If you have questions about what feed additives are and how they are used in raising beef, feel free to ask me via the blog contact form. I have worked in several cattle feedlots that use many feed ingredients and can share my experience with you.

Not all cattle are fed beta-agonists, and when they are fed, it is only for a limited period of time. I respect any producers decision whether or not to use these feed additives, and the same respect goes for any choices consumers wish to make. I just wish to add some educated information to the conversation.

There are several online resources available that you can reference.

Related posts on cattle feeding

  1. Cattle feedlots and the Environment
  2. What do feedlot cattle eat?
  3. What is a cattle feedlot?
  4. Does feeding corn harm cattle?
  5. Farm and Food Radio: Beta Agonists and Cattle…
  6. Are We Increasing Resource Use and Taking Beef from the Mouths of Hungry Children?

Ask a Farmer: Are feedlot cattle fed antibiotics and hormones?


An example of a cattle feed supplement providing necessary minerals

Due to a large amount of criticism and misrepresentation of the facts, many people have expressed mixed ideas about what occurs in beef production. I have spent a large portion of my life getting well acquainted with all stages of beef cattle production and have a few thoughts and opinions to share.

Recently, I have started a series of posts describing my experience with feedlot cattle and am addressing your concerns about feedlot cattle, what they eat, if feeding corn harms them, and how feedlots impact the environment.

Today, I will address more about what these cattle are fed and how they are handled, using my experience as a guide.

Are feedlot cattle given feed additives?

We’ve been studying cattle diseases for quite some time and still have a lot to learn

Nutrients are often added to the feedlot cattle ration in micro amounts to provide a balanced diet- often referred to as feed additives. These additives often include vitamins and minerals required to balance the animal’s diet.

Other feed additives are used to enhance growth and promote health. The growth enhancers act at the cellular level to promote efficiency by partitioning energy to muscle tissue growth rather than deposition of fat. The health promoters work by improving efficiency of rumen microbes that digest the feeds and promote a healthy digestive tract. These are not similar to antibiotics used in human populations and do not necessarily act as materials working on the immune system.

These additives are used to make more efficient use of energy from feeds and are completely metabolized in the animal’s digestive tract, leaving no residues in the meat products. If residues were found, the product would not be allowed in the food system.

How often are cattle given antibiotics in a feedlot?

Cattle are treated for sickness no matter the stage of production or type of farm – conventional, organic, or natural. Cattle in feedlots are looked after on a daily basis. Each and every day someone rides through the pens and looks at each animal individually. Animals that show signs of sickness (usually respiratory) were brought to the veterinary hospital where a rectal temperature was taken. If the animal had a high temperature or showed significant signs of illness, they were given antibiotics as prescribed by the veterinarians protocols.

Medicated feed in the bunk for cattle that were having health problems

Sometimes entire groups of animals are given a treatment with antibiotics or other medicines. When cattle entering the feedlot are known to be stressed, have weakened immune systems, come from a mixed background like an auction barn, or other factors that may cause them to become ill, they are considered high-risk. These cattle would be handled delicately when arriving at the feedlot. They would transition to higher-energy feeds slower and receive more forage. If 10% or more of the cattle became sick within a week, they were considered for treatment for the entire group. This often heads off any major sickness, and actually reduces the amount of sickness and antibiotics that must be given later on.

Janeal Yancey, meat scientist and mom from Arkansas, has addressed these concerns about antibiotics and residues in the meat supply. Be sure to stop by her blog and send her a message for more information on the topics.

Are feedlot cattle given hormones?

Feedlot cattle are often given a hormone implant to promote feed efficiency. These are synthetic hormones of the same chemical structure and are of minimal amounts when compared to naturally produced hormones already in the animal’s body. The implants are given in a pellet form, inserted under the skin in the ear so there is no concern for muscle tissue damage or residues. They promote efficiency on the cellular level by promoting learn muscle growth and less fat deposition.

Despite consumer concerns over the use of hormones, there is no threat to meat safety. Hormone implant use has decreased over the last few years and has become more precise in timing and utilization. Nebraska cattle feeder and foodie, discusses hormones and how they are used in her feedlot cattle on her blog.

As all of this happens, we always keep in mind that we are producing beef for families who want safe food

After listening to the concerns and question from many folks, I realize modern food production can be a scary thing. I have spent a large amount of time studying subjects like nutrition and how these products work and still have so much to learn. Discussing these subjects in detail takes a large amount of time and effort.

I am continuing to learn and do understand that there is a time and a place for everything. As we continue to learn and listen, we will also find that use of all technology is not always best, but that does not mean it should be banned. We should embrace the concept of technology and science in food production and learn how it can best be applied to every different situation.

If you have more questions about cattle feedlots, pleases leave them in the comments section below or us the Ask a Farmer tab at the top of the page.

Ask a Farmer: Cattle Feedlots and the Environment


cattle feedlot CAFO feed millI had an interesting conversation with a young woman from a Journalism class a few weeks ago who asked to interview me about Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in livestock production, specifically environmental concerns. A Meat Science professor had recommended me since I have spent most of my life acquainted with cattle feeding – my family took care of more than 12,000 head of cattle per year and sent most to the feedlots of Texas and Oklahoma – and I have worked for the two largest cattle feeding companies in the country.

What impact do CAFOs have on the environment?

Government has a heavy role in AFO/CAFOs for the purpose of environmental regulations. AFOs must prevent any air or water pollution, no discharge (run off) is allowed, buffer zones must be observed, and nutrient management plans must be specified. View this guide from Missouri Department of Natural Resources for more information on guidelines and classification of AFOs.

Texas cattle feedlot environment
Aerial view of a cattle feedlot where I worked in Texas

These regulations make sense because we (farmers) want to be good stewards of the land and our resources. By having guidelines as a place to start on how to manage the impact of having so many animals in one place, and it defines a level of accountability for everyone across the board. From a small, family AFO to the largest operation, we are all held accountable by the same standard when it comes to environmental impact.

Sometimes folks try to take shortcuts or slack on following these guidelines. They leave a black eye for the rest of the industry because in today’s world of internet communication and food conversations, news spreads quickly without being fact-checked and one bad apple ruins the entire bunch. Most often, these issues are addressed by regulation enforcers and the problem corrected.

How do cattle feedlots address environmental concerns?

Nutrient management is a large part of any CAFO. When there are large numbers of animals in a concentrated area, a large amount of nutrients – feed, dust, water, manure – will be present. This is the same for concentrated populations of people, but we do not realize all of the planning that takes place to manage our own waste in landfills and sewage treatment.

texas cattle feedlot dust CAFO environmentDust - Most cattle feedlots are in more arid regions of the country. This means that manure, mud, and dirt dry out quickly. This is great for the cattle as far as pen conditions and heat stress goes, but it creates an issue with dust. If you have ever been on the High Plains when high winds kick up, you will learn that dirt can become airborne from any exposed surface (pretty much everywhere). Dust issues are a concern when feedlots are near major roadways or towns. Feedlots control dust problems by regularly cleaning pens, scraping any loose mud/dirt out of the pens on a regular schedule, minimizing water collection areas, and using water sprinklers to keep loose dirt moist.

Texas cattle feedlot water CAFO environmentWater - Absolutely no water discharge ran off the premises in the feedlots where I worked. Feedlots are not built on flood-prone areas, for obvious reasons. All water is collected in a collection pond, were solids will settled and water can be used for crop irrigation on neighboring fields. A large amount of planning goes into building a feedlot. Engineers plan the slopes of all the pens, alleys, and waterways so that water will collect in one central point. There is a buffer around the feedlot making sure that there is not water that runs off during a rainstorm.

Texas cattle feedlot manure environment CAFOManure - When there are several thousand animals in a concentrated area, they produce tons of manure. This manure is cleaned from pens on a regular schedule and more often when needed. In many feedlots, pens are built with a raised mound, giving the cattle a dry place to bed down when rainstorms pass or during the messy parts of winter. Being in arid regions allows moisture to dry quickly, so any mud created usually does not last long. The manure is collected, composted, and usually sold to local farmers who apply it as organic fertilizer to their fields.

There are other environmental impacts controlled by regulations (air quality, noise, smell), but these above are the main areas where I have experience. The same goes for poultry, pork, and other livestock farms classified as CAFOs. If you want to learn more, many NRCS and USDA websites contain detailed information.

Bottom line, CAFOs are a method of livestock production that has developed because of market and supply demand. We have a growing global population and decreased amount of land available for food production. For those who cannot afford locally sourced, small-scale, niche food production larger scale food production provides viable options.

Producers of animals on a larger scale are concerned about minimizing their impact on the environment and take steps daily to achieve that. The majority of us exceed expectations determined by the government powers-that be. We work constantly to make improvements and are always a work in progress.

What questions do you have about cattle feedlots? I’m addressing your concerns in my Ask A Farmer series. Leave a comment or use this contact form.

We do care about being stewards of our environment and resources, animal welfare and proper handling. You do not have to agree. All I ask is that you respect my opinion. If you have concerns about how food is produced in CAFOs systems, take time to approach the conversation with an open mind, ask questions of someone with hands-on experience, and learn more about it.