[image link=”” lightbox=”false” rounded=”all” width=”730px” alt=”Conventional Beef Farming”/]

The facts

Beef cattle in Australia are for the most part reared outdoors, where they graze in open paddocks. Beef farming is referred to as an extensive industry (compared with conventional egg, chicken meat and pig farming which are all intensive industries) and is generally not associated with the welfare issues related to animals kept in intense confinement.¹ Nevertheless, there are several animal welfare issues associated with beef farming. These include:

  • Painful procedures such as dehorning/disbudding and castration/spaying, which are performed without anaesthesia and pain relief
  • Painful methods of identification e.g. branding, tattooing, ear punching (where holes are cut in the centre of the ear) and ear notching (where pieces are cut from the ear edges), which are performed without anaethesia and pain relief
  • Effects of long-distance transportation within Australia – cattle may travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres to feedlots and/or abattoirs
  • Issues associated with live exports – long-distance transportation by boat as well as the treatment and slaughtering of animals in overseas destinations

In addition to the issues highlighted above there is the issue of feedlots. In Australia at present, around 35% of beef comes from cows that are ‘finished’ in feedlots. This means the cows spend the last part of their lives (usually around 6-8 weeks) in a feedlot facility.

In feedlots cows are kept in pens and fed a grain-based diet to ensure they reach a specific weight before slaughter and to provide consistent meat quality. Most of the almost 700 feedlots in Australia are accredited under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme which means they need to adhere to a set of standards and are audited on a yearly basis to ensure they do.

According to the RSPCA, there are, potentially, some serious welfare problems associated with keeping cattle in feedlots. These include:

  • The restriction on the ability of cattle to move around
  • Lack of adequate shelter from the extremes of weather (especially heat)
  • Problems associated with manure buildup and wet manure
  • Problems associated with the handling of the animals and mixing of unfamiliar animals
  • Dust levels
  • Feed management

The widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones and the health effects on the cattle of the switch to a grain-based diet (from their natural diet of grass) are also cause for concern.

…The system of veal production where calves spend their entire lives in individual crates with solid wooden sides that do not allow the animal to turn around or express natural behaviours, is not used in Australia. Calves are generally reared in groups in sheds and fed milk or milk replacer and grain…

…Around 30% of Australian cattle are ‘finished’ in feedlots. This means they spend the last part of their lives (anywhere from 60-300 days) in a feedlot facility…

What are the alternatives?

[image link=”” lightbox=”false” rounded=”all” width=”730px” alt=”Organic Beef”/]

The facts

Organic food is grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and with a focus on environmentally sustainable practices. Certified organic produce that carries the stamp or logo of one of the seven Australian Accredited Organic Certifiers has met the organic standards (see below) and is audited annually to ensure compliance with these standards. Cattle raised within certified organic farming systems must be:

  • Able to roam and graze freely. Feedlotting is prohibited
  • Able to perform their natural behaviours
  • Fed certified organic feeds
  • Free from growth hormones or antibiotics
  • Dehorned before 6 months of age or under anaesthetic

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The facts

The other alternative to conventional beef is beef that is referred to as either free range, grass-fed/finished and/or pasture-fed/finished. While there are no legally binding definitions for these terms, they generally mean the same thing, which is that the cattle graze on grass in paddocks for their entire life and they are not ‘finished’ in feedlots. Most grass/pasture-fed and free range beef is also free from growth hormones and antibiotics (but to be sure you need to check with the individual producer). Only a very small proportion of grass/pasture-fed and free range beef has been accredited by a third party accreditation scheme.

At present, the Humane Choice label (run by Humane Society International) is the only scheme that sets standards for free range/pastured beef in Australia. The Humane Choice standards are similar to the organic standards in that they prohibit feedlotting and do not permit the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, debudding/dehorning must take place before 3 months of age or under anaesthetic.

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Highest animal welfare choices:

  • Certified organic and accredited free range (grass-fed/finished and/or pasture-fed/finished) beef products are the best choices.
  • Look for the following logos:

[image link=”” lightbox=”false” rounded=”all” width=”730px” alt=”Most Ethical Choices”/]

Next best:

  • Free range or grass/pasture-fed/finished) beef

For products labeled free range that are not accredited, speak to the retailer or producer directly to find out about farming methods used. Questions you can ask the retailer/producer include:

  • Does the beef come from cows that have been feedlotted?
  • Are the cows treated with antibiotics and growth hormones?

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  • Many of the large and some of the smaller supermarket chains carry certified organic beef
  • Specialty health food stores
  • Organic butchers and butchers specializing in free range meats
  • Farmers’ markets: see to find markets in your local area
  • See our Where to Buy page for stockists and online retailers

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