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Raising and handling beef cattle in Canada

There are 12.5 million cattle raised for meat and milk in Canada every year (source: 2016 census).

For most of their life, beef cattle (i.e. those raised for meat) are raised in operations where they graze pasture with their mothers and the rest of the herd.

Once a calf reaches 200-300 kg (450-600 lbs) body weight, it is commonly transferred to an intensive feedlot operation. Beef cattle typically live for about 18 months before being sent for slaughter.

What are the main concerns for beef cattle welfare?

  1. Painful practices:
    Horn removal (dehorning or disbudding) and castration (neutering) are a few of the painful practices cattle have to endure on Canadian farms. These practices are commonly done without pain medication or veterinary supervision, and can cause severe pain and distress.
  2. Feedlot operations:
    Cattle sent to feedlots are mixed with unfamiliar cattle from other farms. There, the cattle undergo a rapid switch from a forage-based (pasture) diet to a high-calorie, grain-based diet. This switch can cause severe and lasting gastrointestinal pain, especially if the diet change is abrupt, which it often is. The large, dry, dirt lot houses the cattle for an average of 3 months before they are sent for slaughter.
  3. Hot iron branding:
    Cattle are often branded (marked) with a red hot iron for identification purposes. This procedure is typically performed without any use of pain medication. Farmers have the option of freeze branding their cattle or tagging their cattle’s ears in place of hot iron branding; however, hot iron branding is still the most common method of cattle identification used in Canada.

Support a better life for beef cattle

SPCA Certified farmers prove that it’s possible to meet the needs of these complex animals on farms. SPCA Certified standards include stringent requirements, such as:

  • Use of pain medication when performing painful practices, and some practices are expressly prohibited
  • Feedlot operations are not certified in the program unless specific cattle welfare requirements are met
  • Hot iron branding is prohibited

SPCA Certified logoFarmers who successfully meet SPCA Certified standards are able to sell their foods with the program’s stamp of approval – the little red barn label. If you or someone you know eats beef, you can help beef cattle lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them by finding a SPCA Certified retailer near you.

Understand your food labels

When shopping for humane beef products, pay careful attention to the labels. Here are a few quick tips for finding the right beef products:

  1. Green light: best choices for welfare.
    Certifications like SPCA Certified, Certified Organic, and Animal Welfare Approved are your best options for supporting high welfare farming practices. These farms have been regularly audited to strict requirements for animal care and welfare.
  2. Yellow light: next best choice.
    Grass-fed (PDF) and pasture-raised beef comes from farms that feed their cattle a grass (forage) diet. The cattle are not fed a high calorie, grain-based diet although they may still be sent to a feedlot for finishing on grain. Hint, look for the ‘grass-fed and finished’ label to be sure cattle weren’t subjected to feedlot conditions at the end of their life.
  3. Red light: these labels are misleading!
    Don’t be fooled by claims like ‘hormone-free’ or ‘natural’. Without a certification or a meaningful description of animal care, these labels do not mean better treatment for animals.

Get the full story on ethical food labels.

Take action for all farm animals

We work with the farm industry and government to encourage improvements to the lives of farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for animals by participating in any of our farm animal welfare campaigns.

You can also learn where we stand on some of the key issues and subscribe to our quarterly FarmSense e-newsletter to stay up-to-date on our initiatives.

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