After birth, beef cows typically spend the next four to five months grazing with their mothers, until they reach a weight of about 160 to 230 kilograms. The calves are then weaned from their mothers, and may be sent to a “back grounding” lot, where their diets are changed from grass to hay and grains to begin fattening them for slaughter. When they reach around 400 kilograms, the cows are moved to feedlots. Calves who are not “back grounded” go directly to feedlots.
Feedlots (also called “finishing” lots) raise serious welfare concerns. The main issues being crowding and inappropriate feed. The largest feedlots can accommodate up to 40,000 animals. Cows are social animals, yet the stable social groupings established on the range are destroyed in feedlots, throwing the animals into social chaos.
Cattle are initially fed a diet consisting mainly of hay and forages, with their feed gradually becoming 90% grain. Grain feed causes the cattle to gain weight more quickly than grass, thus making their flesh fatter and their meat more appealing to consumers. However, grain feeding wreaks havoc with the animals’ digestive systems because cattle are ruminants suited to eating grass, not grains. Grain can cause bloating, diarrhea and extreme discomfort.
In addition to the issues with feedlot conditions, cattle are subjected to a number of painful procedures. Branding is used as a way to identify cattle ownership and farm of origin. It entails pressing a hot metal bar against the animal’s body, causing third-degree burns. It is an extremely painful and stressful for the animal, is done without anaesthetic or analgesia, and can cause weight loss and anorexia. Castration, the removal of the testes in male cattle, is usually performed at the same time as branding, when the animal is between two weeks and two months old. It is typically performed with a knife, but can also be performed with the emasculator or the elastrator, both of which stop the blood flow to the testes, causing them to eventually fall off. This painful procedure is also performed without anaesthetic or analgesia. Dehorning is also an extremely painful procedure, particularly for older animals whose horns are more developed and full of sensitive nerve endings. The procedure is often performed by stockmen, not veterinarians, and without anaesthetic or pain relief. Most animals must be physically restrained during the procedure because of the distress and pain involved.
Unlike other organic meat industries, “certified organic” beef does not necessarily mean the animals are raised more humanely. In some cases, they are still sent to feedlots. Though some certified organic bodies have minimum space requirements, others do not, and most allow procedures like castration, branding and dehorning. The best way to ensure beef has been humanely raised is to purchase beef from cattle not subjected to feedlots that have been fed a diet of grass their entire lives.
For more details on beef cattle, download our fact sheet (pdf file).