The Great Puzzle: What Role Does a Beta-Agonist Play on My Farm? By Anne Burkholder

My farm is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces that must be put together in the correct way in order to make the best beef in the most sustainable way. I have a road sign along the highway with my farm’s mission statement: Protecting the Environment and Caring For Our Animals To Bring You Safe, Great-tasting, High Quality Nebraska Beef. All of the decisions that I make at my cattle feed yard are made with this mission statement in mind.

I wake up every day asking myself how I can do a better job-how can I be a more responsible animal caregiver and grower of food? Sometimes it is a question of paying closer attention to detail and sometimes it is a question of looking into new science / technology which will allow my animals to be more efficient producers of food.

We talked last week about how every action or choice has a consequence. I think about this every time that I make a decision about how to care for my animals at the feed yard. I talk with my veterinarian and my PhD nutritionist, I do personal research, I rely on personal experience, and I make a decision by weighing the positives against the negatives-knowing that every choice has a consequence.
I began feeding a beta agonist called ractopamine hydrochloride about four years ago. I started feeding it to only a few of my animals and have slowly increased to feeding it to every one of my animals as I gained personal experience and confidence in the product.
Beta agonists, like ractopamine, work by activating the beta 2 receptor on the muscles of my cattle. This binds specific beta receptors in the muscle cell membranes and increases protein synthesis. What does this mean exactly?
  1. As animals grow larger and get close to the time of harvest, their bodies tend to turn nutrients into fat instead of lean muscle. Ractopamine encourages or repartitions those nutrients into muscle growth through protein synthesis rather than fat deposition.
  2. This allows the animal to make more lean muscle (what we want to eat), and less fatty tissue (what we do not want to eat).

By making more muscle and less fat from nutrients, the animal becomes a more efficient user of its food thereby reducing the total environmental footprint of its food production.

Here is a list of questions that I worked through prior to making the decision to feed ractopamine to my animals:

  1. Does ractopamine affect the well-being or health of my animals? Good animal welfare is important to me and I want to ensure cattle comfort on my farm. It has been my observation that cattle fed ractopamine on my farm remain comfortable and healthy.
  2. Does ractopamine affect the quality of the beef that my animals grow? I follow my animals from birth to harvest and there is no impact on the quality or taste of the beef (I eat it too!). However, ractopamine does have a positive change on the leanness of my beef product: it makes my beef leaner with less fat that must be trimmed off at the harvest level.
  3. Why feed ractopamine to cattle? I feed it because it allows them to be more efficient convertors of my natural resources, while also allowing them to produce a leaner product with less fat trim at harvest.
  4. Would I feed beef from cattle that had been fed ractopamine to my children? Absolutely, I do it every day.

As with any practice that I employ on my farm, I constantly watch and evaluate its use. I will continue to research and study the product ractopamine as well as to continue to evaluate its effectiveness. Taking care of my animals, my farm, and producing wholesome beef are my top priorities – everything that I do on my farm must help me to successfully fulfill my mission statement.


Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Anne’s blog “Feedyard Foodie.” It is republished here with the author’s permission. The outgoing link to Feedyard Foodie blog post is maintained by third parties and should not be considered an endorsement by the Beef checkoff of that website or company. By clicking the above link you are leaving a checkoff-funded site and accessing a non checkoff-funded website.


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