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What are the animal welfare issues with feedlots for cattle?

Cattle grazing feedlot

Feedlots are yarded areas where cattle, after having been raised on pasture, are held in groups in close confinement while being fed a grain-based ration. Feedlot pens may hold 50-200 cattle each. Feedlots are used in beef production to ensure cattle reach a specific weight before slaughter and to provide consistent meat quality and quantity to meet consumer demand. Feedlots may also be used during poor seasonal conditions (e.g. drought) to feed animals so they can still reach market weight. Beef products labelled ‘grain fed’ are from cattle who have spent an average of 50 to 120 days in a feedlot and the label ‘grain fed finished’ indicates a minimum 35 days in a feedlot before the animal is slaughtered.

There are several hundred cattle feedlots in Australia, with the largest regional concentrations in mixed farming areas of Queensland (around 60%) and New South Wales (around 30%). Around 4% of Australia’s beef cattle population (or approximately 1 million animals) can be in feedlots at any one time.

Achieving good animal welfare for cattle in feedlots

Good animal welfare goes beyond preventing pain, suffering or distress and minimising negative experiences, to ensuring animals can express their natural behaviour in an enriching environment, feel safe, have healthy positive experiences and a good quality of life. A widely accepted framework for assessing animal welfare is the Five Domains which distinguishes physical factors that affect an animal’s welfare (health, nutrition, environment and behaviour) and the impact these have on an animal’s mental state.

For animal welfare to be good, feedlots should provide cattle with all the necessary elements to ensure their physical and mental health, including:

Good health

  • Sick or injured animals should be quickly identified and treated.
  • Bovine respiratory disease, acidosis and heat stress are key health risks and should be addressed.

Good nutrition

  • Feedlot diets are different to the pasture that cattle would normally eat and the transition to a feedlot diet (a grain-based feed) can result in digestive disorders, including acidosis, and other health problems.
  • Feedlot diets should avoid digestive problems and allow cattle to ruminate and satisfy the need to chew, e.g. by providing adequate fibre/roughage.
  • Clean, fresh, potable water should be available at all times.

Good environment

  • Shade – Cattle will seek shade when it is available regardless of whether they are breeds adapted to hotter climates (Bos indicus) or southern breeds (Bos taurus) and feedlots should provide shade to meet this need in a manner that doesn’t compromise the ability to dry out the pens following wet weather.
  • Thermal comfort – A key aspect of managing the welfare of cattle in feedlots is monitoring and understanding the likelihood of an ‘excessive heat load’ event where cattle are unable to dissipate heat and their body temperature can rise to dangerous levels. This can happen during periods of several days of high temperature and humidity and minimal air movement. Heavy cattle (i.e. those who have been in the feedlot for longer) with dark coats are particularly susceptible to heat stress. Provision of shade, water and a summer nutrition program in addition to recognising heat stress (e.g. panting) in cattle are key to preventing suffering, distress and even death during such events.
  • Space – The space provided to animals in feedlots should not impede normal movement, normal behaviours or postures, or negatively affect the comfort of the animals. Stocking density must be managed to avoid respiratory disorders. Generally, the more space per animal, the better their welfare.
  • Drainage – To avoid foot problems, including lameness, good drainage and a suitable hard standing area are important. Muddy conditions can cause muddy coats which interferes with the animal’s ability to thermoregulate. Mud also discourages cattle to lie down.
  • Air quality – Dust levels in feedlots should be controlled.
  • Expertise – Management of the feedlot should follow the advice of veterinarians and nutritionists experienced with feedlot animals.

Good behaviour

  • Rest – Cattle may rest (lie down) for up to 10 hours a day so the pen surface should be dry and provide a comfortable area to allow animals to rest. Sufficient space should be provided to allow all animals to lie down at the same time.
  • Social interactions – Cattle arriving at a feedlot are mixed with unfamiliar animals and a new social hierarchy must be formed. Once the social hierarchy is established at the feedlot, further mixing should be avoided. Abnormal behaviour, such as steers mounting each other, will negatively impact the welfare of the subordinate animal. Cattle should have sufficient space to carry out normal behaviours/postures and avoid aggressive encounters. This includes sufficient space at the feed bunk and water trough to avoid competition. Cattle brushes have been found to reduce the incidence of some abnormal behaviours in feedlot cattle such as self-grooming, bar licking and head butting.
  • Handling – Low-stress stock-handling methods and positive interactions with feedlot stockpeople reduces fear levels. Cattle must not be moved by yelling at them or using dogs or electric prodders.
  • Access to pasture – Cattle have a strong behavioural need to access pasture for grazing but also for resting/lying, particularly at night. Before entering a feedlot, cattle have spent their lives in paddocks where they can walk long distances while foraging and grazing on pasture. Providing environmental enrichment, for example foraging devices (for hay) or some form of physical exercise within the feedlot environment, may go some way towards satisfying this behaviour.

Good mental state

  • Good animal welfare is about meeting an animal’s physical and behavioural needs (as described above) as well as providing opportunities for the animal to have positive experiences and the ability to exercise choice. Frustration of innate needs can lead to animals carrying out abnormal behaviours.
  • In animals, positive mental (or affective) states can be induced by satiety (feeling full after a meal), thermal comfort, good health and fitness, friendly social interactions and a sense of control over their environment.

Cattle destined for feedlots can be prepared well in advance of arrival, e.g. by getting them used to handling in a low-stress manner, by practicing yard weaning on farm, by establishing groups of familiar cattle that will go to the feedlot together, and by ensuring cattle have had the appropriate vaccinations. The welfare of animals in feedlots is also influenced by the design and management of the facility. Feedlots should only be managed by trained and competent staff.

National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS)

Over 90% of cattle feedlots (around 400) are accredited under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme. Accredited feedlots are independently audited on an annual basis to ensure compliance with NFAS standards and rules and relevant legislation.

NFAS standards include an animal welfare module which aims to ensure the welfare of cattle is not compromised. This includes:

  • Compliance with the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle.
  • Daily inspection of cattle.
  • Hospital pens being available for sick cattle.
  • Pen surfaces draining freely.
  • Prompt and humane euthanasia of cattle when required.
  • Managing the welfare of pregnant cows and newborn calves.
  • Ensuring antimicrobials are used prudently.
  • Internal animal welfare audits to be conducted every 6 months to review compliance with the standards.
  • Requirements for reporting of unusual numbers of sick or dead cattle.
  • Preparedness strategies to avoid and manage excessive heat load events.
  • Compliance with the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines – Land Transport of Livestock and ensuring cattle are fit to load.
  • Procedures to investigate incidents of animal cruelty.

NFAS-accredited feedlots must also adhere to the National Guidelines for Beef Cattle Feedlots in Australia and its companion document, the National Beef Cattle Feedlot Environmental Code of Practice which aim to address the environmental impact of feedlots, e.g. preventing or minimising impact on surface and ground water, the surrounding community, and native flora and fauna, as well as efficient use of resources and reduction of pollution and waste. The NFAS standard includes an environmental management module which requires stocking density to range between 9 and 25m2 per head of cattle.

What is the RSPCA’s view?

To ensure that the animals’ basic needs are met, cattle feedlots must at the very least be accredited under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS) and undergo annual third-party auditing to monitor compliance with the NFAS standards. For animal welfare to be good, as assessed through the Five Domains framework, there is more that feedlots can do.

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is a significant cause of sickness and death in feedlot cattle. Causes of BRD are multifactorial, however ensuring only healthy, vaccinated cattle enter the feedlot, providing sufficient space, managing pen conditions and minimising stress may go some way towards reducing its incidence. The risk of acidosis should be managed by nutritionists engaged in the composition of the feedlot ration, but also provides an opportunity to add interest to the animal’s feed by including hay or other roughage which the animal can manipulate and chew. Including roughage in the diet can also reduce abnormal behaviours in feedlot cattle, such as tongue rolling and bar licking, which are signs of frustrated feeding behaviours.

Not all feedlots provide all their cattle with access to shade. In 2020, the Australian Lot Feeders Association launched a voluntary initiative asking all feedlots to provide cattle with shade by 2026. In addition to shade, cattle in feedlot pens should be provided with freedom of movement and the ability to satisfy their behavioural, social, and physical preferences and needs. The space provided to animals in feedlots should not impede normal movement, normal behaviours or postures, or negatively affect the comfort of the animals.

Current feedlot environments are unable to meet the animal’s innate need to access pasture for grazing and for resting and lying, particularly at night. Feedlots provide cattle with opportunities for social interaction but are otherwise barren and provide little to no opportunity for engagement with the environment, such as foraging behaviours and other physical activities. Although further research is required in this area, it is possible that cattle in feedlots experience boredom through lack of activity and/or an enriching environment. To meet the behavioural needs of cattle and contribute positively to their mental state, cattle should have the choice to access pasture for grazing, resting, and ruminating.

An enriched environment in which all the necessary elements are provided to ensure an animal’s physical and mental health, including a sense of control (i.e., choice), will contribute to cattle in feedlots having a good quality of life.

Bibliography

Aus-Meat (n.d.) NFAS Information, available at https://www.ausmeat.com.au/services/list/livestock/nfas/nfas-information.

Australian Lot Feeders Association (n.d.) Frequently Asked Questions, available at https://www.feedlots.com.au/faq.

Blakebrough-Hall C, McMeniman JP, González LA (2020) An evaluation of the economic effects of bovine respiratory disease on animal performance, carcass traits, and economic outcomes in feedlot cattle defined using four BRD diagnosis methods. Journal of Animal Science 98(2), skaa005.

Fureix C, Meagher RK (2015) What can inactivity (in its various forms) reveal about affective states in non-human animals? A review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 171:8-24.

Grandin T (2016) Evaluation of the welfare of cattle housed in outdoor feedlot pens. Veterinary and Animal Science 1:23-28.

Macitelli F, Braga JS, Gellatly D et al (2020) Reduced space in outdoor feedlot impacts beef cattle welfare. Animal 14(2):2588-2597.

Meat & Livestock Australia (n.d.) MLA Tips & Tools: Heat load in feedlot cattle, available at https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/feedlot/feedlot-animal-health-and-welfare/heat-stress.

Mellor DJ, Beausoleil NJ (2015) Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare 24:241-253.

Meneses XCA, Park RM, Ridge EE et al (2021) Hourly activity patterns and behaviour-based management of feedlot steers with and without a cattle brush. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 236, 105241.

Ridge EE, Foster MJ, Daigle CL (2020) Effect of diet on non-nutritive oral behavior performance in cattle: A systematic review. Livestock Science 238, 104063.

Salvin HE, Lees AM, Café LM et al (2020) Welfare of beef cattle in Australia feedlots: a review of the risks and measures. Animal Production Science 60:1569-1590.

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Updated on August 6, 2021
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