Reuters / For more than a century, ranchers and their kids have paraded cattle around the dusty show ring at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, in a rite of passage that is part farm economics, part rural theatre.
Today, with U.S. auction prices for champion cattle topping $300,000 a head and hefty scholarship cheques for winners at stake, the competitive pressures are intense. It’s no wonder animals with names like Beast or Chappie get the farm version of luxury spa pampering — shelter from summer heat, baths with pricey shampoos and careful coiffing with electric razors.
Many also get muscle-building livestock drugs added into animal feed. While performance-boosting drugs are banned today in most human sports competitions, Zilmax and other drugs of a type called beta-agonists are federally approved and generally allowed on the livestock-show circuit.
For many contestants the secret weapon of choice is Zilmax, a controversial feed additive sold by Merck & Co. Zilmax-based feeds can give show kids an edge in the headline competition for market-ready steers and heifers, say show sponsors and competitors. They add thicker meat where judges like it most, between the 12th and 13th ribs, where rib-eye steaks come from.
Merck temporarily suspended Zilmax sales in the United States and Canada in August, soon after the largest U.S. meat processor, Tyson Foods Inc., stopped accepting Zilmax-fed cattle for slaughter over animal welfare concerns. After Merck last week said it was preparing to return Zilmax to the market, food giant Cargill Inc. declared it would bar Zilmax-fed animals from its supply chain until it was “100 per cent confident” those issues are resolved.
But in cattle shows at state and county fairs across the Farm Belt, Zilmax remains popular. Existing stockpiles of Zilmax-based show feeds circulated at fairs this fall. So, too, did products made with Optaflexx, a rival drug by Eli Lilly & Co.’s Elanco Animal Health group that is based on ractopamine, also a beta-agonist.
Ractopamine has not been tied to the animal welfare issues seen in cattle this year.
“If it’s legal, you use all of your options,” said Justana Tate, 17, a Texas state fair competitor, her championship belt buckle gleaming as she stroked her snorting steer to calm him.
Tate is a Zilmax fan. “I think it’s a fabulous product,” she said.
Many of the fresh-faced kids who compete at cattle shows have seen beta-agonists on their family farms or feedlots. Full-strength Zilmax, when added to feed weeks before slaughter, can add about 30 pounds of muscle to the average 1,300-pound steer.
When those children begin competing, some reach for medicated show feeds, which are readily available at rural feed stores and via the Internet, say competitors and show organizers.
In some cases, manufacturers distribute free samples of medicated feed to youth development groups 4-H or Future Farmers of America, said Richard Sellers, the American Feed Industry Association’s vice-president for nutrition and feed regulation. The practice is legal — and pragmatic.
“You want them to buy feed when they grow up,” Sellers said.
Winners’ circles and drug tests
At the Texas state fair, champion steers routinely fetch six-figure prices at auctions held just after winners’ belt buckles are handed out. The same goes for the recent American Royal livestock show in Kansas City, Missouri, or the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, in January.
Slaughterhouses and agribusiness firms often buy the winning steers and market heifers to burnish their brands and encourage youngsters’ farming careers. After that, the animals are slaughtered.
The zeal at livestock shows can run so hot that there have been drug abuse allegations in the past, though Zilmax has not been implicated.
Some parents and cattle ranchers want beta-agonist use banned at shows. Arizona rancher Harvey Dietrich, co-founder of advocacy group Beef Additive Alert, said the shows are fuelling a culture of shortcuts.
But Daryl Real, vice-president of the Texas state fair’s agriculture and livestock department, shrugs off concerns. The FDA allows Zilmax in beef cattle heading to grocery stores, he reasoned, so contestants should learn to use it, too.
Real said most contestants use Zilmax responsibly: Even in Texas, judges don’t want steers to be too big.
“I liken it to the way I like whipped cream on a dessert,” Real said. “A little bit goes a long way. You can have too much whipped cream and ruin the dish.”
Some young competitors say they’d rather win without Zilmax.
Ten-year-old Saige Martin of Hereford, Texas, raised her steer Corndog free of beta-agonists, said her father, show cattle breeder Brian Martin.
Corndog’s closest competitor was a 1,318-pound cross-breed steer named Rojo, and 16-year-old Caitlen Doskocil of Holland, Texas, used a ractopamine feed “to stout him up,” said Caitlen’s father, Doyle Doskocil. The family’s supply of a Zilmax-based feed had run out, he said.
Inside the Texas state fair show ring, Corndog — named after the popular American snack because of his colouring — towered over Saige, whose cool smile masked her jitters. A judge slowly circled the steer and ran his hands over the back, feeling for a thick padding of muscle.
Corndog was named Grand Champion steer. At auction, he sold for $110,000, a fair record.
Saige got a $30,000 cheque for her college fund — after Corndog passed his drug test.