The total number of beef cattle (cattle raised for meat) in Canada is estimated at 9.2 million animals. There are over 39,000 beef farms across Canada.
Life of a beef cow
The Canadian beef industry is generally divided into two stages: cow-calf operations and feedlots.
The lives of beef cattle typically begin at a cow-calf operation. Here, cows are bred and give birth to calves, who are raised alongside their mothers on pasture to graze with the rest of the herd. Calves are weaned from their mothers at around six to eight months of age, and after they reach a weight of approximately 600 to 900 pounds, it is common to transfer them to a feedlot operation.
A feedlot is a large, open often outdoor dirt lot that has been sectioned into many group pens. Here, the cattle are fed high energy grains until they reach a finished market weight of 1350 to 1400 pounds. Beef cattle are typically 18 months of age before being sent to slaughter.
What are the main concerns for beef cattle welfare?
- Painful procedures
Horn removal, castration and branding all cause pain and distress to beef cattle on Canadian farms.
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, this is still a common practice. In Canada, pain control is only required for dehorning, not disbudding.
Beef cattle are castrated if not used for breeding to decrease aggression and improve taste of the meat. In Canada, pain control is only required when castrating bulls older than six months of age.
Cattle are branded for identification purposes. Although other forms of identification are being used more frequently in recent years, branding still occurs on some Canadian farms. In Canada, there is no mandatory pain control when cattle are required to be branded.
- Feedlot operations
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 forage-based (pasture) diet to a high-calorie, grain-based diet. It is a requirement in Canada to make this transition gradually, otherwise this switch can cause severe and lasting gastrointestinal pain.
Cattle that are lame experience pain and distress and a reduced ability to access feed and water. Lameness in feedlot cattle can be the result of infections, often due to the wet and muddy pen conditions, and also from poor facility design resulting in injuries.
- Weaning methods
Weaning can cause distress to both the cow and the calf, especially when it occurs abruptly. Both the cow and the calf suffer due to loss of social contact with each other, and the calf has to deal with the stress of the removal of milk from their diet. There are no requirements for weaning Canadian beef calves.
- Exposure to weather extremes
Since beef cattle spend most of their lives grazing outdoors on pasture or outside in feedlots, they can be exposed to extreme heat, cold and other poor weather conditions. Cattle may or may not have suitable protection from the elements while outdoors. In some cases, the only source of water for cattle is snow.
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 beef products.
We are always working to build a better future for farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for farm animals by taking action.
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