Healthy cattle equals healthy beef
Quality beef comes from happy, healthy, quality cattle. Quality is purely an outcome of care – raising happy, healthy cattle is the only way to produce top quality beef.
In the grain fed beef industry, it is imperative that all livestock are well cared for from the time they arrive at the feedlot to the time they leave. Every aspect of their welfare is planned and monitored by trained staff, including socialising, their health program and diet.
Setting the standard for animal welfare
Taking care on the road
In conjunction with the Five Freedoms that guide animal welfare at feedlots, the industry works under the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle. Part of this code relates to Land Transport Standards and Guidelines which sets practices to minimise stress and optimise welfare for cattle during transportation. These standards cover handling, loading density, food and water, rest breaks and vehicle and facilities.
Animal wellbeing is a top priority
Australian feedlots operate aligned to the globally accepted system of assessing and ensuring animal wellbeing around the world, known as the Five Domains (previously referred to as Five Freedoms).
The Five Domains hold the key to good animal health and they include:
NFAS spells care
For the Australian grain fed beef industry, animal welfare objectives are underpinned by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS). NFAS accredited feedlots are independently audited every year and, to remain accredited, must ensure that the four pillars of Food Safety, Environmental Management, Livestock Management and Product Integrity are all stringently followed. Livestock management is a key measure that ensures livestock are treated with great care at all times during their time in a feedlot.
Taking cattle wellbeing seriously
Just like people, when an animal’s immune system is overwhelmed by pathogens, such as bacteria, they become ill. When this occurs, a vet can prescribe medicine to treat the infection and aid the immune system to heal the animal. Antimicrobials are one of a number of tools available to feedlot managers to help ensure the health and welfare of animals in their care. The term ‘antimicrobial’ refers to medicines that act to selectively kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria. Antibiotics are a group of antimicrobials used against bacteria. Antimicrobials generally rely on a functional immune system to work effectively.
In Australia the majority of antibiotics used to treat cattle are different to human antibiotics, and their use is meticulously managed. The appropriate use of antimicrobials is a shared responsibility between the veterinarian and the feedlot. Vets are responsible for prescribing antimicrobials compliant with regulations. Grain fed beef producers reduce the need for antibiotics by protecting animal health. They are also responsible for using antibiotics appropriately in accordance with vet instructions.
In 2018 the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association voluntarily established Antimicrobial Stewardship Guidelines. 62% of the industry has voluntarily adopted antibiotic stewardship plans in their businesses since the guidelines were released.
This has been verified through 300 independent audits. More recently the industry has announced that the guidelines will be a mandatory requirement of the industry quality assurance program from the start of 2022 and plans are in place to encourage this.
Some grain fed beef brands choose to be antibiotic-free, meaning that any cattle that have had antibiotics administered will not be part of their antibiotic-free brand.
Some veterinarians and nutritionists recommend a small and carefully managed amount of non-human use antibiotics called ionophores be included in the feed ration, as a preventative measure against parasites and as a way of improving feed efficiency. These products have no use in human medicine as determined by World Health Organisation.
Before any antibiotic can be used to treat cattle, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) must be satisfied that its use will not result in residues that would be a risk to the safety of people. Many antibiotics have a ‘withholding period’ that means cattle cannot enter the food chain within a designated period after being treated, as a safety measure for consumers.
Australian food systems have strict standards in place to manage withholding periods in line with these guidelines.
The cattle industry in Australia has national systems in place to trace each animal from its property of birth, right through to the processing plant, including time spent in a feedlot. Every animal has an individual ID, managed through an ear tag linked to a national database that stores this information. This system is fundamental to Australia’s reputation for producing clean, green and safe red meat, underpinning our domestic beef market and our export market access.
What breeds are grain fed and for how long?
Any breed of cattle can be grain fed and the amount of time they spend in a feedlot will vary depending on what meat characteristics are being sought and the consumer market for which they are being prepared.
Almost any breed of cattle can enter a feedlot on a ‘short fed’ program – where cattle are finished in a feedlot for the last 35-100 days of their life. Longer feeding periods, of 150 days or more, tend to favour those breeds that have a genetic propensity to lay down marbling, the flecks of white fat you see within the muscle. These are British breeds such as Angus or Shorthorn, or Japanese breeds that are called Wagyu in Australia. These cattle are more suited to a long feeding period where their diet means they grow slowly and can gradually lay down marbling that is favoured by many customers and consumers.
Preparing cattle for the feedlot
To assist cattle in adjusting from a paddock environment to a feedlot environment cattle producers and grain fed beef producers prepare the cattle through a practice known as backgrounding.
- Creating ‘social’ groups on farm where cattle are grouped into the mob they will stay with in the feedlot, minimising stress
- Vaccinating cattle for diseases prior to their arrival at the feedlot, optimising animal health
- Introducing trough feeding in the paddock to get them used to eating from a feed trough, settling them
- Starting cattle on a high fibre diet when they arrive at the feedlot helps their digestive system acclimatise to the new conditions, and transition slowly to a higher energy ration, assisting digestion
Many people are aware of the term Hormonal Growth Promotants (HGPs). There is some confusion as to what HGPs are, why they are used and the safety surrounding their use.
HGPs are naturally occurring hormones such as oestrogen, or synthetic alternatives, which are used in cattle to produce more weight from less resources, leading to more efficient growth. The hormones in HGPs are nature-identical to those that naturally occur in beef.
HGP’s can be used in both grass fed or grain fed cattle. Some feedlots and some beef brands choose to treat cattle with HGPs, whilst others choose to be free from added hormones.
SAFEMEAT, the partnership between the red meat livestock industry and Australia’s state and federal governments, reports that a 100-gram serving of beef from an animal treated with HGPs contains just 2 nanograms of estrogenic activity.
The same-sized serving from a non-HGP-treated animal contains 1.4 nanograms.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) cites research a single consumer would need to eat more than 77kg of beef from cattle treated with HGPs (in one sitting) to get the same level of oestrogen hormone found in one chicken egg.
In fact, the bodies of both women and men naturally produce many thousands of times more oestrogen every day than that found in a meal of beef steak.
HGPs have been used safely in Australia for around 30 years and their use is regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) that people can safely eat beef treated with HGPs over their lifetime.
CSIRO research has shown cattle enjoy a grain-based diet as it is high in nutrition and energy.
Don’t forget that grain is essentially the seed of grass, hence is a natural product that cattle have been eating for thousands of years.