​Beef cattle production in Canada
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Beef farming in Canada

In Canada, there are approximately 10.2 million beef cattle on over 60,000 farms across the country. Beef cattle are raised throughout B.C., which has about five per cent of the national beef herd. There are over 4,000 beef farms across the province.

Beet cattle stand in dry pasture

Life of a beef cow

The Canadian beef industry is divided into three stages: cow-calf, backgrounding, and feedlots.


The life of a beef cow begins on a cow-calf operation. In the summer, cows are bred and give birth to calves the following spring. The calves are raised alongside their mothers on hay and pasture with the rest of the cow-calf herd. Most of the care of the calves is left to their mother, with some interventions from the farmer (i.e. vaccinations, castration of male calves, tagging, branding, and disbudding). In the fall, when calves are approximately five to eight months of age, they are weaned from their mothers and raised in groups with other calves.

Herd of beef cows with their calves on pasture.


Backgrounding is the next stage for calves after weaning, which is a growing stage. This may happen at the same farm they were born on, or they could be moved to another farm. After weaning, cattle are fed a forage-based diet and live on pasture to increase their weight. Most cattle are then sent to a feedlot for “finishing.”


Most cattle are sent to a feedlot between nine and 11 months of age. A feedlot is a large, open-air often outdoor dirt lot that is sectioned into group pens. Cattle can also be finished in indoor barns. Here, the cattle are fed high-energy grains until they reach a finished market weight of 1450 to 1700 pounds (around 18 months of age). Beef cattle are then transported to a processing plant for slaughter.

Cattle raised in feedlots are marketed as “grain-finished” or “grain-fed.” Cattle who remain on grass or hay/forage-based diets until slaughter are marketed as “grass-finished” or “grass-fed.”

Beef cattle in a feedlot in Texas.
Beef cattle in a feedlot.

Priority areas for improving beef cattle welfare

Providing pain control for painful procedures

Branding, disbudding, and castration all cause pain and stress to beef cattle.

In Canada, all beef cattle must be identified with an ear tag. However, branding also still takes place on some Canadian beef farms, and pain control is not required for this painful procedure.

The horns of beef cattle are removed to decrease the risk of injury to people and other animals. Beef cattle can be dehorned or disbudded (removal of the horn bud before attachment to the skull). While the number of beef cattle with horns has been decreasing in recent years due to the use of hornless genetics, disbudding still takes place on Canadian farms. In Canada, pain control is only required for dehorning, not disbudding of beef cattle. In both the dairy and veal cattle sectors, pain control is required for both, and dehorning is prohibited, except in special circumstances.

Male beef cattle are castrated if they are not being kept for breeding purposes. There are different methods of castration used on beef farms, but all cause pain. In Canada, pain control is only required when castrating bulls older than six months of age. Unfortunately, most castration takes place when calves are much younger than this, so they are not required to be provided pain control.

Reduced exposure to weather extremes

Since beef cattle spend most of their lives outdoors, whether on pasture or in feedlots, they can be exposed to weather extremes and require protection from the elements. In Canada, beef cattle are required to have access to areas that provide relief from the weather, but this shelter may not always be suitable or able to accommodate the entire herd. Additionally, there are not always enough dry, comfortable resting or standing areas for the cattle.

Beef cow outdoors in the snow.

Improved conditions in feedlots

Feedlots present a variety of risks to the well-being of beef cattle, including increased risk of disease, high energy feeding causing nutritional problems, and lameness.

Cattle sent to feedlots are mixed with unfamiliar cattle from other farms, which can increase the risk of disease. Cattle also undergo a switch from a forage-based (pasture) diet to a high-calorie, grain-based diet, which cattle are less adapted to digesting.

Pen conditions in feedlots can become very muddy and wet, a risk factor for cattle developing infections and becoming lame. Cattle that are lame experience pain and a reduced ability to access feed and water.

Improved monitoring of animal health

Pastures and feedlots used to raise beef cattle may be large, making it difficult for farmers to check on each animal daily. Cattle require adequate monitoring to ensure they are in good health and have the feed and water they need. Sick or at-risk cattle must receive the care they need to recover, which may include moving them to special recovery pens, providing treatment, and/or giving them a special diet.

Support a better life for beef cattle

By choosing higher-welfare food products, you can help beef cattle lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them. Learn more about shopping for higher-welfare food. 

We are always working to build a better future for farmed animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Currently, the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle is being updated, and the industry wants to hear from you! To stay up to date when the draft Code is ready for public comment, subscribe to our Action Alerts.

Beef cattle on pasture.

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