Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.





Head Above Water

Do you ever have days where you feel like there is so much going on that you are struggling just to keep your head above water?  Maybe it’s more than just a day, maybe it seems more like a week or a month!  The past few weeks have been that way for me.  I have been so busy with travel and research that it seems like I’ve just been fighting to stay on top of all my responsibilities.  Now that I am back in Moscow for a few weeks it is a good time to reflect back on all that has been happening.

Following the judging contest we took in a few sights of Chicago.

Chicago, IL:  This was quite the trip.  I chaperoned five undergraduate students to the Meat Animal Evaluation Contest at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois.  The students participated in live animal evaluation, where they looked at breeding animals (those that will be used to produce offspring.  It is ideal for animals to have good genetics, bone structure, and size to be able to carry offspring.), market animals (hogs, cattle and sheep that are going to be harvested.  Ideally, these animals have a lot of muscle and adequate fat), and meats (carcasses were evaluated for yield and quality, and retail cuts, ie. steaks/porkchops, were ranked).  It was a great opportunity for our students to be able to compete in this contest and for me to be able to lead them!  Following the contest, we spent a little time in Chicago living the tourist lifestyle.   

Anacortes, WA:  The last weekend in March, I went to the Northwest Meat Processors Association convention.  This conference hosted local meat processors from across Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, who were able to bring their best products to be entered into a contest.  That’s right, a contest of bacon, ham, jerky, sausage, salami and more!  I was lucky enough to get to help judge the fresh sausages (I tried over 40 different kinds!).  It was such a fun experience to be able to see all the hard work and pride that the processors put into their products. 

The meat science grad students from the University of Idaho after an awesome tour of Del Fox Meats at the Meat Processors Association Convention.

Boise, ID:  My final trip took me to Boise for a food safety training.   Hazard Analysis, Critical Control Points (HACCP) training taught me how to look for potential problems in a meat processing facility and how to mitigate those issues.  We are specifically concerned with physical (bone chips), chemical (cleaning products) and biological (Salmonella) hazards.  Every meat processing plant has to have a HACCP plan in place where they go through every step of the production process, identify any hazards that could potentially occur, and establish a plan on how to monitor those hazards and ensure that safe food is making it to the consumer. 

On top of travelling, we have been busy with research.  The PhD student that I work with is wrapping up her project.  For her work we had to measure pH and temperature on carcasses and often had to do checks throughout the night.  Waking up at 3 am to go into a cooler isn’t always fun, but I have made some great memories working on this project!

Busy, busy, busy.  It is so easy when we are in a busy season to wish time away.  “If I just get through this trip, then I can get to the next one and then I can get a break.”  It’s easy to get worn out and forget how great of an opportunity some of these experiences are.  Looking back at the past few weeks it amazes me the experiences that I have gotten to take in and the people I have met.  I’m very thankful to have all these opportunities, but I’m also thankful to be back in Moscow and have some time to catch up on things before the next busy season approaches!

Calving Season

The story of a steak begins long before it finds your plate.  In fact, for this story to begin, we must rewind over two years from when you purchased that steak, to baby making season…

Farmers make careful genetic decisions to improve their herd and the quality of meat that the animals produce.  There are numbers called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), that help producers predict how specific traits will be passed down to future generations of livestock.  Think of these numbers like batting averages.  That number helps you predict how your favorite player will hit and gets more accurate every time he is up to the plate.  EPDs work the same way; helping producers make decisions with their accuracy improving with the more offspring an animal has. EPDs are often used if a farmer is buying a bull or choosing one to use for artificial insemination.   These predictions can be specific for birthweight, ribeye area, marbling ability, and much more.

Natural breeding is common to the beef industry, but many operations incorporate artificial insemination into their program. Artificial insemination (AI) is an incredible technology that producers can use to help improve their herd genetics.  To use AI, semen is collected from the male, frozen and can then be shipped all over the world (In fact, when I visited a farm in China, they were using semen from a bull owned by a farmer I know in South Dakota!).  AI can be a relatively low-cost option to farmers to purchase limited quantities of semen, rather than making a large investment in a bull.  AI can be very successful for many operations and allow for specific breeding choices to be made, improving livestock quality.  

So now that the cows are bred, they need to be taken care of in terms of nutrition, health and environment to ensure a healthy calf is born.  Working with nutritionists and veterinarians help ensure that the cows are getting the nutrients that they need and are cared for. 

Then, about 283 days later…. it’s baby time!  Calves are born and a whole new round of excitement begins.  It’s calving season right now, and many farmers and ranchers are keeping busy. This winter has been hard on a lot of producers and livestock.  Farmers check on the livestock day and night to ensure new calves can be dried off and warmed up.

When a calf is born, it is important for them to be able to stand up and eat.  The first milk that they receive from their mama’s is colostrum.  Colostrum contains antibodies and nutrients that are passed on to the offspring.  This first meal is vital for future health of the animal. 

It is important to care for the calves during this time, but it is also necessary to keep a close eye on the cows.  The cows need to be fed a good diet that provides them enough energy to maintain themselves, as well as helping their calf grow strong and healthy.

This is just the beginning of the story of how meat makes it to your kitchen table.  Simply having a calf turns into a big process and requires so much time and hard work; from selecting a bull, to breeding, to keeping the cow healthy, to calving.  But all that hard work pays off knowing that it is the first step in providing a high quality product for consumers.  

A Picture of Life on the Farm

Recently my Facebook timeline has been full of people doing a “10-day farming and ranching challenge.”  A picture each day for 10 days showing what life on the farm looks like but without any explanations.  Just a picture, no words. 

Now, I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a little context is a good thing.  This week, I am going to take a little detour from our meat safety and quality conversations and share a little insight into what being involved in agriculture has looked like for me. 

This time of year is so exciting on the farm because babies are being born!  I have so many great memories going out late at night with my dad to see if any lambs or calves were born. Right now, my family is in the midst of both lambing and calving.  There have been some extremely cold temps and snowy days the past few months in South Dakota; however, it doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside, farmers and ranchers don’t get a snow day.  They go to work, day and night, to ensure that their livestock is cared for.

Blue sky, green grass, black cattle, one of my favorite views!  Every summer, we bring our cattle to the pasture for a few months.  After long, dreary winters, it is so encouraging to see new life, both in the vegetation and in the baby calves! 

Putting up hay.  Not exactly the most fun job on the farm (or photogenic), but it’s work that needs to be done.  Typically, it’s the hottest days of the summer when the hay is ready to be put into the barn.  It’s a hot, dusty, job.  Storing hay during the summer gives us an ample supply to use during the winter during lambing and calving.  Square bales (like what is in the picture), can be used for bedding or as feed, depending on what the bale is made of.  It may be a lot of work in the summer, but when winter comes along we are sure thankful that the job got done!

I know that this isn’t a farm picture, but I had to include it.  It is still crazy to me to think that someday I am going to be a meat scientist.  How crazy is that?!  The agricultural industry offers so many opportunities for careers outside of farming and ranching; meat science, nutrition, genetics, and so much more.  I am so excited to see where this path leads me and what opportunities lie ahead!

You simply can’t beat South Dakota sunsets!  I grew up looking at this view every day.  I am so thankful to have grown up on a farm and for all the values that it instilled in me.  I learned the value of hard work and how to work as a team.  No matter where I end up in the future this will always be one of my favorite views.

Most importantly, on a farm  you don’t go to an 8-5 job where you become acquaintances with your co-workers.  Farms run on families.  Did you know that 98% of farms are family owned and operated?  Farming isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle; one that everyone must commit to.  Whether it be working with livestock, harvesting crops, putting up bales, or making meals for the people in the field; everyone is involved.  I’m so thankful for this bunch and couldn’t have asked for a better crew to call my family.

These are just a few photos are just a snapshot of what life on the farm looks like. I am so thankful to be involved in this industry and I hope this detour gave you a look into the ag world!