Feedlots in Australia

You may have heard a bit about the feedlot vs. pasture fed cattle debate over the years. There's a lot of info floating around out there, but unfortunately a lot of it is specific to North America, which can have a slightly different farming model to Australian farms. If you've been left wondering "what exactly is a feedlot in Australia", read on!
Feedlots in Australia

The MLA (Meat & Livestock Australia) defines a feedlot as a “confined yard area with watering and feeding facilities, where cattle are completely hand- or mechanically-fed for the purpose of beef production.” Feedlots are basically large fenced off dirt yards where large numbers of cattle are held for grain feeding to put on weight/mass prior to slaughter. Although the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association strongly encourages the provision of shade structures in feedlots, this is not a requirement, which means that cattle on feedlots are not necessarily guaranteed shade on hot days. “The RSPCA argues that even cattle breeds adapted to hotter climates naturally seek shade, and feedlots should provide this shade without compromising the ability to dry out the pens following wet weather.” (https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/meat/articles/whats-your-beef)

There are around 450 accredited feedlots in Australia, the majority of which are located in Queensland (60%), followed by New South Wales (30%), with the rest shared between the remaining states. Grain fed cows spend most of their life on pasture before moving to a feedlot for the final 50-120 days of their life. According to MLA, in 2020 “3-million grainfed cattle were marketed (slaughtered)”, which amounts to about 36% of Australia’s total beef production.

How does feedlotting work?

Cattle are transported to the feedlot by truck, where they are “inducted” upon arrival. This process varies depending on the facility but often involves recording details such as age, weight and breed, before being administered medical treatments such as vaccinations, Hormone Growth Promotants (HGP’s) and treatments to eradicate internal or external parasites along with bacterial or viral diseases picked up prior to feedlot entry. They are also tagged with a radio frequency ear tag in line with the National Livestock Identification Scheme requirements.

When a cow is moved from grass feeding to a feedlot, they are swapped over from their natural diet of grass to a grain mix usually consisting of barley, wheat and sorghum. Cows are ruminants, meaning they have a second stomach (the rumen) specially adapted to digest grass. The fermentation processes a cow uses to digest this grass produce gases, which the cow then burps out. Compared to grass, grain is much more easily digested which can lead to serious medical issues for cows if they transition too quickly to grain. When a cow eats a lot of grain or is moved to grain too quickly, the fermentation process speeds up significantly, causing an excess of gas to build up in the rumen (essentially blowing their abdomen up like a balloon), often leading to death unless treated swiftly by a vet.

In addition to this, grain feeding alters the pH of a cow’s stomach, which is usually pH neutral, to become more acidic. This can cause what basically amounts to cow heartburn and lead to ulcers, rumenitis and a weakened immune system, leaving them more susceptible to disease and more likely to require treatments such as antibiotics. In short - their bodies are just not made to eat grain.

Feed needs to be quite closely monitored in a feedlot situation, as cows will willingly overindulge on grain if allowed to. We’ve heard quite a few producers over the years refer to grain as ‘like candy for cows’, so it’s easy to understand why they would gravitate towards grain over grass even if it’s not necessarily the healthiest choice for them.

What are the benefits of feedlots?

Feedlots are a great way for producers to consistently meet market demand and specifications for their cattle irrespective of weather conditions or seasons. This means that even in times of drought, farmers are able to produce consistent meat and reach target weights for their animals. This is especially useful in drier areas such as Queensland, where it may be more challenging to raise cattle on pasture alone.

Some also argue that grain fed beef production is more efficient “as there is less land required, fewer cattle needed, less stress placed on the environment and less greenhouse gases emitted to produce the same amount of beef” (https://www.feedlots.com.au/faq) however on the other hand - many counter that the close quarters of these animals combined with the dry, dusty conditions of the yards can lead to toxic runoff from animal waste, causing environmental issues elsewhere. There is also increasing evidence that pastured cattle play an important role in environmental management and revitalisation, as well as aid in the sequestration of carbon in the soil if managed properly.

According to the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association “on average, feedlot cattle also have lower mortality rates than grass fed cattle. This is because feedlots employ veterinarians to oversee health programs, animal nutritionists to determine and monitor cattle diets; and highly trained staff to supervise them on a daily basis.” Given that animals in this environment are more susceptible to a host of health issues related to their grain diet (as well as issues from the buildup of animal waste in feedlots in some cases), closer monitoring of their health is necessary, with vets needing to be on hand to administer antibiotics to treat any infections caused by bacteria and other micro-organisms.

What about organic?

Certified organic beef can vary a bit from certification to certification but ACO (Australian Certified Organic) stipulates that cattle cannot be confined to feedlots - which is great! Under this certification cows must be allowed free access to pasture and any supplemented feed must also be certified organic. This means that even ​if​ beef is certified organic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is completely grass fed and finished. At Cannings, all our beef is grass fed and finished, added hormone and antibiotic free, free range and certified GMO free - without the additional cost of organic certification!

Overall, whilst there are benefits to grain feeding for farmers and consumers - mostly in the form of a consistent product, we truly believe that grass fed and finished beef is the best choice for the animal, the environment - and you! We believe animals should be free to express their natural behaviours - and what is more natural to cows than roaming over pasture, eating what their bodies were made to eat: GRASS!

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