Some people perceive Australian feedlots to be an ‘unnatural’ production system which creates animal welfare issues for cattle. However, for welfare and consistency reasons, feedlots play an important role in the Australian livestock system, particularly in times of drought.
What is a feedlot?
- A cattle feedlot is a managed facility where livestock are provided a balanced and nutritious diet for the purpose of producing beef of a consistent quality and quantity.
- In Australia , cattle spend around 85-90% of their lives in an extensive pasture based environment before entering a feedlot.
- The 10-15% of their lives spent in a feedlot represents between 50-120 days. At any one time around 2% of Australia’s cattle population are located in feedlots. This number can fluctuate depending on seasonal conditions. Cattle are generally taken to feedlots for two main reasons:
- Firstly, Australia’s dry seasons and/or dry years result in pastures that have insufficient nutritional value to support cattle growth and welfare. Notably, cattle require increasing nutrition as they get older and this places greater pressure on pastures and hence the environment.
- Secondly, customers in both Australia and our export markets actively demand grain fed beef due to the industry’s ability to consistently meet market requirements in terms of quality and quantity (irrespective of seasons or droughts).
Watch this short video below about what happens on an Australian Cattle Feedlot. If you want to watch more videos on this topic check out our #GoodMeat Series.
Animal welfare in Feedlots
- The feedlot sector was the first agricultural industry in Australia to implement a quality assurance program, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS).
- NFAS is independently owned and managed to industry, with feedlots also independently audited each year to ensure compliance with its standards along with animal health & welfare, environment and food safety legislation.
- Accreditation is compulsory for the supply of grain fed beef to major domestic retailers and the export market.
- Continuous updating of this scheme with relevant scientific and technical information enables industry to demonstrate that it operates in accordance with the requirements and expectations of consumers, markets, Government and the wider community.
- Feedlot cattle are supervised on a daily basis by highly trained livestock handlers, hospitalised if unwell, and are protected from starvation, floods, fire, droughts and wild animals. Lot feeders also employ veterinarians to oversee animal health and welfare programs.
- Feedlot cattle are placed in a yard of up to 6,000m2 in size (ie around the size of 14 basketball courts) - enough space for all cattle to exhibit natural behaviour in terms of movement and interaction.
- In accordance with NFAS requirements, plentiful quantities of clean fresh water and feed are supplied 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. NFAS also requires manure to be regularly removed from pens. Notably, it is in lot feeders’ commercial interest to regularly remove such manure as it leads to improved cattle performance and a valuable revenue source as a soil conditioner.
- The feedlot industry has invested large amounts into research and development to address issues such as heat stress. As a result, NFAS requires that feedlots have a heat stress management plan in place which ensures the provision of increased shade and water along with altering rations to enable cattle to better cope with such weather events. A web based risk assessment tool has also been developed by the industry to accurately determine the forecasted impact on cattle from these events thereby allowing time for feedlot operators to activate heat stress management plans to mitigate their affect (http://chlt.katestone.com.au). Such technology is now being used to assist humans in better managing heat stress. Under NFAS, such requirements are independently audited annually to ensure compliance.
- Importantly, lot feeders have an economic incentive to deliver good animal welfare. This is because it results in improved productivity and beef eating quality. Lot feeding profit is intrinsically related to both. The fact that the cattle feedlot industry developed the Meat Standards Australia program (a system which delivers guaranteed eating quality for consumers) demonstrates the importance placed by the industry with respect to eating quality and animal welfare.
The environment and Feedlots
- The key tool that the industry utilizes to manage environmental matters is NFAS. The core environmental requirements within NFAS are set out in the National Beef Cattle Feedlot Environmental Code of Practice. This document details the national environmental standards for the establishment and operation of feedlots. It is more stringent and encompassing than legislation and lot feeders are annually audited against it via NFAS. The document has been formally approved by relevant state and federal Government agencies and Ministers.
- Whilst feedlots like all businesses, must adhere to State environment, waste and planning legislation; NFAS ensures this occurs through annual independent audits of feedlots.
- Environmental legislation imposes management and licensing requirements (eg annual soil and water testing and reporting) along with offence provisions to prevent water, air and noise pollution.
- Waste legislation provides a framework for managing wastes from waste avoidance, to re-use, recycling, and energy recovery, through to waste disposal.
- Planning legislation stipulates the planning conditions to minimize the development’s impact upon the environment and surrounding community.
- As a result of NFAS and legislation, feedlots have an excellent environmental record.
Feeding cattle in Feedlots
- In Australia, the main grains used in feedlot rations are barley, wheat and sorghum. Notably, the barley and wheat used is generally lower in quality than is deemed fit for human consumption whilst sorghum is used solely for livestock (and to a lesser extent, ethanol production).
- Cattle in feedlots also have specific diets developed by animal nutritionists that provide all their vitamin, mineral, energy, protein and water needs 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Water for cattle in feedlots
- Water in feedlots is used for stock drinking purposes, dust suppression, feed processing, cattle washing, effluent management, general cleaning and for staff and office amenities.
- Stock water consumption is by far the most significant with an average of approximately 50-60 litres of water consumed per head a day.
- More information on water use in the feedlot can be found here.
The Australian feedlot industry is committed to continual improvement, and invests in ongoing research, development and extension projects. Some of these include:
The Australian Lot Feeders’ Association (ALFA) conducts annual animal health and welfare workshops to educate lot feeders around Australia about changing regulatory and NFAS requirements along with best management practices used around the world to ensure animal health and welfare standards continually improve over time. In addition, animal welfare is a key component of the industry’s prestigious Feedlot of the Year competition.
There is plenty more work being undertaken including projects on water, emissions and waste.