Increasing numbers of ranchers are ditching the antibiotics as they carve out a premium section of the beef market, for which consumer demand is high.

Meyer Natural Angus is one company based in Montana that has adopted a strict protocol for raising cattle without growth hormones or antibiotics, with good results. President Ray Killian told the Associated Press: “Demand has been more than we ever anticipated.”

This year, plans are in place to slaughter about 35,000 cattle, double that of last year. The T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant chain now serves burgers made from Meyer Natural Angus meat.

“We, as cattlemen, are going to have to target our cattle to some specific market,” said Killian: “We can’t just go out and raise cattle and then hope that somebody buys them.”

Having said that, however, the operation is more than just a bid to capitalise on a niche market, he insisted: “What it does is force us to have a ‘well-animal programme’ to keep the animals healthy so they don’t have to be treated, and I think that’s a positive contributor to the taste and the quality of the product.”

At Billings-based Montana Range Meat Co., CEO Lee Leachman revealed that the antibiotic-free policy was giving producers premiums averaging 13 cents per pound of carcass weight over the past two years: “The premiums we’re offering can make it so, in the bad years, (a cattle rancher) breaks even and in the rest of the years, he makes double what he would have.

“That’s pretty significant.”

Beef raised without antibiotics has found a committed consumer following, especially among those concerned over the sourcing of their meat, or the potential health problems associated with the passing on of antibiotics through the meat. These are still being debated.