How are beef cattle reared?

Beef cattle are reared outdoors in all Australian states and territories. Southern areas with good pasture have herds with a high density of stock and northern areas, with less feed, have herds with a low density of stock. Queensland and New South Wales account for 69% of beef and veal production. While Australia is the world’s seventh largest beef-producing country, it is the world’s second largest exporter of beef. In 2010, around 60% of total beef and veal production was exported.

Beef cattle come in many breeds and crossbreeds, some suited to mild climates and some to tropical climates. Some are from the dairy industry where cows may be mated with beef bulls to improve their calves’ meat quality.

Beef calves are usually weaned at 8–10 months of age and can be sold for slaughter or veal production. They can be weaned at younger ages if cows are losing body condition and, in a severe drought, calves can be weaned as young as six weeks provided they are given a high protein diet.

Although abrupt separation of the cow and calf is a common way to wean calves, it is stressful for both. Less stressful methods are gradual separation where cows are slowly moved further from calves, and ‘creep feeding’ calves, where a small opening in a fence lets calves, not cows, go to better-quality pasture and the calves get used to being separated.

Another weaning method involves a two-stage process where calves are initially prevented from suckling their dam through the application of a nose ring which is easily placed. The calves are then separated after a few weeks and the nose ring removed. Research shows that calves weaned in two stages are less distressed than calves weaned abruptly. They vocalise less and spend more time eating and resting after separation. The two-stage process allows the cow and calf to be together while, at the same time, ending suckling.

The least stressful method is ‘yard weaning’ where calves are given good-quality feed in a yard, while their mothers graze in an adjoining paddock and, a few days later, are moved further away. It is labour intensive but calves benefit by getting used to yards, people, handling and group socialisation. In addition, being in yards makes it easy to do health checks, vaccinations and parasite control. This weaning method is important if calves are going to a feedlot or are destined for live export. Cattle producers aim to mark (identify), dehorn if necessary, and castrate calves before weaning. It is acceptable to use a knife to castrate calves less than four months of age or rubber rings to castrate calves less than two weeks of age. The horn bud may be removed up to eight weeks of age by heat cauterisation or dehorning knife. Where the herd is spread over a large area, some animals may miss musters and unfortunately will be older when these procedures occur. In this case, it is best if both castration and dehorning are treated as surgical procedures — performed only by a veterinary surgeon using anaesthetic. In general, the RSPCA believes that all surgical animal husbandry procedures should be performed at the earliest age possible and must be accompanied by pain relief and/or anaesthetic.

Identification of cattle is used for on-farm management and tracking from birth to slaughter, but some methods are painful. Microchips or other electronic methods cause little discomfort. Tattooing and tagging need to be done humanely and, if branding is necessary, freeze branding should be used but not on the cheek. All husbandry procedures should use best practice and good hygiene. Hot iron (fire) branding and ear mutilation are unacceptable marking methods.

At marking and weaning, calves and cows can be checked for disease, lameness, deformity and unsuitable temperament. Depending on the problem, they should be treated by stockmen or a veterinarian, culled or humanely and promptly euthanased. They must only be sent to slaughter if they are fit to travel.

After weaning, management and feeding practices are fitted to beef production targets, for example to reach a particular age or weight for the domestic or export market. Some cattle may go to a feedlot where the diet is aimed to have the animal reach a high degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) before going to slaughter.

Beef cattle producers are obliged to provide their stock with good-quality feed and clean water. They are responsible for cattle safety by providing good fencing, yards, handling facilities and shelter against weather extremes; as well as protection from predators and toxic plants. They must ensure cattle are only handled by skilled workers and, if necessary, using well-trained dogs that are under effective control. Producers should have contingency plans to cover disasters such as fire, flood, drought and major cattle disease outbreaks.

Because of Australia’s vast size, many cattle undergo long-distance transport before being slaughtered or shipped for live export. Ideally, all cattle should be humanely slaughtered as close as possible to where they were reared. The RSPCA is opposed to the live export of animals for slaughter.

There are codes of practice and standards/guidelines for cattle production, transport and slaughter. They outline the minimum recommendations for good animal welfare. However, there can be considerable differences between farms. The beef-cattle production chain should be subject to quality assurance and independently audited to ensure cattle welfare is not compromised. To a large degree good welfare can be achieved with good stockmanship — being the knowledge, skill, attitude and behaviour needed to manage cattle in a humane manner.

RSPCA Australia has developed Beef Cattle Welfare – our vision to encourage producers to improve on-farm practices that influence animal welfare.

Further information

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Updated on October 30, 2020
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