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Beef cattle

There are approximately 2.8 million cattle (steers, heifers, calves, cull cows and bulls) slaughtered for beef in the UK each year. About half of these come from suckler production (a beef breed cow producing a beef breed calf), the rest come from the dairy herd (a dairy breed cow producing a dairy-beef cross-breed calf). 

Many people think that beef cattle do not face many welfare issues because they tend to see them kept outside in fields. However, this is not always the case and many beef animals spend their final months inside for the “finishing period” during which time they can be kept on unbedded, fully slatted floors, with little space to move, no enrichment and being fed a diet which can cause health issues.

Some key animal welfare concerns

1. Calf mortality

Mortality in the beef herd is highest in the first six months of life. Many calves will be suffering from similar conditions but do not die, so the causes of mortality have much wider welfare implications. Approximately 4% of calves die in the first 3 months (this accounts for 25% of deaths on-farm). Nutritional causes account for a third of these and respiratory infections can be particularly common. Good husbandry, hygiene and ensuring calves receive enough good quality colostrum and sufficient milk until weaned are essential factors for successful calf rearing.

What the RSPCA welfare standards say...
The RSPCA Welfare standards for calves require that all calves are fed at least 6 litres of milk per day for the first 8 weeks of life. They must be kept in well-ventilated, well-bedded barns or hutches. Long-acting pain relief must be provided if they must be disbudded and/or castrated. Calves kept in individual hutches must be grouped at least one week before weaning (so at 7 weeks old or less). All farms must have a veterinary health and welfare plan identifying illnesses present on-farm and plans to actively reduce them through improvements in husbandry.

2. Housing

Beef farmers have very low-profit margins meaning many units are old and not suited for rearing beef cattle. Older systems often have inadequate ventilation and drainage, which increases the risks of respiratory diseases.

In suckler systems, cows are often kept outdoors during winter and a lack of shelter can negatively affect their welfare.

For finishing cattle some farms use fully slatted indoor systems which require cattle to be kept at high stocking densities and often with a lack of enrichment. The use of straw-bedded yards offers better comfort, however, these often lack enrichment and good management is required to avoid injuries, and to avoid the cattle becoming wet and dirty.

What the RSPCA standards say…

Cattle kept according to the RSPCA Welfare standards for beef cattle for beef sold with the RSPCA Assured logo cannot be kept in fully slatted systems, they have to be given more space than most other assurance schemes and housed cattle must have access to environmental enrichment (such as brushes). Their housing must be well-ventilated and have a bedded lying area as well as an area of hard standing. When out at pasture there must be sufficient access to shade and shelter, water and food.

3. Long-distance live transport

Transport is a stressful experience for the animals, from gathering the animals, the loading process, to the journey itself and the unloading process. Cattle can legally be transported for 14 hours continuously followed by a rest break of one hour, before another 14 hours of travel - totalling a maximum of 29 hours. Food and water only have to be offered if travel time is going to be 24 hours or more. Some animals have food withdrawn for extended periods prior to transport (in order to keep animals clean during the journey, especially if being transported for slaughter).

Live export is due to be made illegal in the near future by the UK government.

What the RSPCA standards say...

Cattle cannot be transported for more than 8 hours from point of loading to point of unloading. They must have access to water up until the point of loading and access to food up to four hours prior to loading (in the case of calves they must have access to food up until the point of loading). Cattle must be given more headroom than legally required to ensure they can hold their heads in a natural position.

4. Castration and disbudding

Disbudding:
Most cattle are born with horn buds which have the capacity to develop into mature horns although some cattle breeds do not have horns (known as “polled breed” e.g. the Aberdeen Angus). Young animals tend to be disbudded (removal of the horn buds) to prevent the development of horns thus allowing easier management and to decrease the risk of injuries to herd mates or to the handler. Disbudding is usually performed by using a heated disbudding iron applied over the horn buds using a local anaesthetic. Currently, over 90% of UK herds are disbudded. Legislation allows unqualified persons to disbud calves of any age provided they use an anaesthetic. Evidence shows that calves can experience pain from disbudding for several days after the procedure.

If calves are not disbudded many have to be dehorned prior to going to an abattoir or being mixed with unhorned animals they have not been reared with. This is a more stressful, longer and more invasive procedure, often with associated blood loss and risk of infection.

Castration:
Entire bulls tend to grow more quickly and result in leaner meat. However, they are more dangerous to handle once sexual maturity is reached and have to be split from the females, therefore bull calves going to be reared for beef are usually castrated. Castration is mostly performed using physical methods, either surgically or by obstructing the blood supply to the testes and scrotum (using a rubber-ring method or the Burdizzo bloodless method). These methods can lead to various health and welfare issues and can be performed by untrained staff on animals under two months of age. The law requires that local anaesthetic is applied to any animal being castrated over two months old. Some beef calves from the suckler herd are castrated at a much older age (around 9 months) - this carries a higher risk of heavy bleeding and infection.

What do the RSPCA standards say?

Cattle kept according to the RSPCA welfare standards for beef cattle producing beef sold with the RSPCA Assured logo must only be disbudded and castrated by a trained individual. Cattle can only be disbudded if under 5 weeks of age (earlier disbudding means a smaller wound and less stress for the animal), they can only be castrated if under 2 months of age. If surgical castration is being used it must be carried out by a veterinary surgeon. All animals undergoing these procedures must be given long-acting pain relief.

Cattle cannot be dehorned under the standards except in exceptional circumstances.

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