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The Impact of Beta Agonist Use in Feedlot Cattle

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sciences
Wordcount: 2061 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 In this brief, the reader will see the effects of beta-agonist use in cattle, both positive and negative. They will be able to better understand what beta-agonists, or growth technologies, are and how they affect them from a consumer standpoint, as well as obtain a better grasp of the science behind how they work. It will also explain how beta-agonists are a tool that, if used properly, can play a significant role in feeding an intensely growing population, and how that relates to the economy. The brief shows many different research experiments comparing the two-main beta-agonists used in production, Zilmax and Optaflexx, on different experimental groups, and how they were different in terms of cattle performance, meat quality and animal health. All sectors of the brief are aimed to facilitate solid platform of knowledge for consumers, and allow them to be more confident in their decisions regarding the beef cattle industry.


 The world’s population is at an all-high and it is continuing to grow at a rapid rate, “experts predict we will reach more than 9 billion by 2050. To feed everyone, we’ll need to double the amount of food we currently produce” (Monsanto). Enormous potential exists within the feedlot industry to maximize the carcass yield of beef cattle at a low cost to producers and consumers alike, but will this pose a safety risk to consumers or livestock? Beta-agonists are dietary additives used to decrease the amount of wasted product, or fat, and increase the amount of edible protein. These growth technologies have been used for many years in different areas of production livestock, and have recently seen increase in utilization. With this increase in usage there has also been heightened concerns of the welfare of animals and the safety of the product being put on the consumer’s plate. There are multiple studies on the effects of beta-agonists, such as Zilmax and Optaflexx, both in terms of the benefits and concerns. It is vital to understand the science behind how the compounds work and the limitations they have in production to truly understand how they can be utilized effectively. Agriculture as an industry is constantly adapting to meet the needs of the population and at times pushes the limits of technology to extremes. To maintain the integrity of the products being supplied it is key to have proper regulations to keep all animals and consumers involved as safe and satisfied as possible. Growth technologies will continue to improve beef production which will keep and ensure that prices stay down, but it is also key that consumers have a positive perception of where their food comes from (Comerford,2014).

Literature Review

A compound most often fed to feedlot cattle, Beta-agonists can be used in various species of livestock to “enhance the efficiency of gain and modify carcass characteristics and meat quality” (Lean, Thompson, & Dunshea, 2014). Their method of action is “bind to receptors on fat cells in the animals’ body and redirect and reduce the metabolism of fat. Consequently, less fat is produced and less fat is stored in the carcass. At the same time the compounds bind to receptors on muscle cells and redirect and increase the size of muscle fibers” (Comerford,2014). By increasing the size of said muscle fibers the overall carcass weight and percentage of lean muscle are increased. More lean muscle means more edible meat product available for consumers, which explains why Beta-agonists are used.

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There are currently two main Beta-agonist compounds available for use by cattle feeders, “Zilmax (zilpaterol) made by Merck and Co. and Optaflexx (ractopamine) made by Eli Lilly Co” (Comerford, 2014). Both products must go through extensive FDA approval before use in livestock feed. Once approved for use, the compounds can only be fed at low levels for a short duration directly before slaughter and have with-draw periods. With-draw periods are the amount of times it takes for a feed additive or medication to get out of an animal’s system so it is safe for human consumption. It has been reported that up to eighty percent of cattle in the United States are fed a Beta-agonist prior to slaughter, resulting in a fifteen to twenty five percent increased average daily gain with no additional feed intake (Comerford,2014).

 Beta-agonists are extremely valuable tools for the beef cattle industry; unfortunately, these revolutionary products raise concerns for consumers as well. Tyson Foods, one of the largest cattle buying and meat supplying companies in the world, announced it would stop buying cattle that had been fed the product Zilmax and “While the move could put a dent in Tyson’s margins by limiting its choice to higher-cost cattle, some analysts also saw a potential commercial benefit – exports,” where many countries have banned the use of Beta-agonist in imports (Waters,2013). Those country’s decisions, as well as Tyson’s, wasn’t from a meat quality standpoint, but regarding animal welfare. They claimed they had noticed cattle struggling to move due to hoof decay and concluded that Zilmax was the culprit because “cattle may have been unable to handle the stress of the additional weight” (Waters, 2013).

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 Another animal welfare concern can be that of the cattle’s temperament or stress level. Temperament in feedlot cattle is vital to production efficiency, and can have a negative effect on anything from feed intake to marbling ability. A specific study took three biologically different groups of cattle (split on breed type) and put them through a routine chute handling procedure, measuring different variables throughout the process. In each data set, there was a control and a test group with the test group being cattle fed the Beta-agonist, Ractopamine. On average the data suggests that cattle exposed to Ractopamine were more excited than those that were not. Excitement in this setting can lead to further injury and stress of the cattle, which may both damage the final meat product (Baszczak et al., 2006). Overall,“[The] use of beta agonists have been associated with increased heart rate, temperament issues, increased body temperature and lameness,” giving consumers and producers alike adequate reason to be concerned about the correlation between Beta-agonist use and animal health issues (Loneragan et al., 2014). However, there is also no denying the benefits of Beta-agonist use from a producers standpoint.

 Essentially, the goal of Beta-agonists is to increase the amount of edible product without increasing feed costs or quantity, resulting in a revenue increase for producers while improving certain red meat products for consumers. To reach this goal, Beta-agonists such as Zilmax (zilpaterol) and Optaflexx (ractopamine) are used to defer fat storage and increase protein production, therefore increasing feed efficiency. A study done on the carcass traits of heifers and steers fed dietary zilpaterol concluded that feeding Zilmax to both heifers and steers showed a significant increase in performance, and cutability, with steer gains minutely outnumbering heifer gains. At the same time, negative effects were recorded in regards to meat quality. It makes sense considering quality is driven by intramuscular fat, and the main purpose of beta-agonists is to limit fat deposition. (Montgomery et al., 2009). Another study focused on the correlation between the use of ractopamine exposure and the performance of feedlot cattle, as well as their feed intake, by determining changes in pH levels for both blood and urine. Healthy pH levels in cattle typically range from 6-8 and maintaining an equilibrium is key to growth efficiency. By testing these levels the experiment was aiming to relate the use of Optaflexx with abnormal pH levels. The study concluded that no significant changes were observed (Abney et al., 2007). There’s numerous facts defending either stance regarding beta-agonist use and both should be considered moving forward in using Zilmax and Optaflexx.


In summary, the use of Beta-agonists in beef cattle production is a scientific revolution, allowing producers to increase yield without a drastic increase in feed intake. Following the basic rules of economics if input stays consistent and output increases, then that correlates to an increase in profit for the producer. From a consumer’s standpoint if the supply of a product increases and the demand stays stagnant, then there should be a decrease in price for that product. Both supply of food products and cost are becoming more important considering the rapidly growing population. If producers can continue to humanely utilize growth technologies like beta-agonists, it will allow them to better do their jobs of feeding the world. However, the negative effects are important to note. The added mass put onto these cattle have resulted in lameness issues and cattle being fed beta-agonist have been shown to be more aggressive. The information contained in this brief is aimed to further inform all producers and consumers of how beta-agonists work from fundamental level, and how they affect the livestock they are used on. Understanding both the pros and cons of products such as Zilmax and Optaflexx will allow the public to make more informed decisions on their consumption methods and have a greater knowledge of the products they are feeding their families. A positive consumer outlook matched with producers constantly putting out health products at an efficient rate is ideal for everyone. If the two sides can work together in understanding each other’s needs and concerns, it is much more likely to maintain an adequate market.


  • Abney, C. S., Vasconcelos, J. T., McMeniman, J. P., Keyser, S. A., Wilson, K. R., Vogel, G. J., & Galyean, M. L. (2007). Effects of ractopamine hydrochloride on performance, rate and variation in feed intake, and acid-base balance in feedlot cattle. Journal of Animal Science 85, 3090-3098.doi:10.2527/jas.2007-0263
  • Baszczak, J. A., Grandin, T., Gruber, S. L., Engle, T. E., Platter, W. J., Laudert, S. B., ……. Tatum, J. D. (2006). Effects of ractopamine supplementation on behavior of British, Continental, and Brahman crossbred steers during routine handling. Journal of Animal Science 84, 3410-3414. doi:10.2527/jas.2006-167
  • Comerford, J. (2014). Use of beta-agonists in cattle feed. PennState Extension, Retrieved from http://extension.psu.edu/animals/beef/nutrition/articles/use-of-beta-agonists-in-cattle-feed
  • Lean, I., Thompson, J., & Dunshea, F. (2014). A meta-analysis of Zilpaterol and Ractopamine effects on feedlot performance,carcass traits and shear strength of meat in cattle. Public Library of Science One, 9(12).doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115904
  • Loneragan G. H., Thomson D. U., & Scott H. M. (2014). Increased mortality in groups of cattle administered the β-adrenergic agonists Ractopamine Hydrochloride and Zilpaterol Hydrochloride. Public Library of Science One, 9(3): e91177.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091177
  • Monsanto. (n.d.). Growing populations, growing challenges. Retrieved from http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/pages/growing-populations-growing-challenges.aspx
  • Montgomery, J. L., Krehbiel, C .R., Cranston, J. J., Yates, D. A., Hutcheson, J. P., Nichols, W. T., ……. Montgomery, T. H. (2009). Dietary zilpaterol hydrochloride. I. Feedlot performance and carcass traits of steers and heifers. Journal of Animal Science, 87, 1374-1383.doi:10.2527/jas.2008-1162
  • Waters, T. (2013, January). Tyson takes lead with Zilmax ban, higher beef prices may follow. Rueters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-livestock-tyson-idUSBRE97805G20130809


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