There are approximately 450 accredited beef cattle feedlots in Australian with the majority family owned and operated. They are generally located in areas which have a ready access to grain, cattle and water.
In Australia, all feedlot cattle spend most of their lives on pasture. Cattle are generally taken to feedlots because pasture quality does not allow cattle to reach marketable weights during poor seasons (droughts) or particular times of the year when rain doesn't fall. Notably, pastures are deficient in northern Australia during the dryer winter months and in southern Australia during the dryer summer months. In addition, consumers in both domestic and export markets actively demand grain fed beef due to the industry's ability to consistently supply market requirements in terms of quality and quantity.
Cattle are first transported to feedlots by truck. Animal welfare transport requirements are governed by legislation and codes of practice which are mandated under the feedlot industry's quality assurance program. Transport time requirements are also stipulated in driver fatigue legislation. It is in both the interests of cattle and the lot feeder for cattle to travel as little distance as possible.
A short time after arrival, a process called 'induction' is then undertaken. This involves a number of steps. Key details such as breed, age and weight are recorded. This information is used to identify cattle which have similar attributes so they can be yarded together. Cattle are then given treatments to eradicate internal/external parasites along with bacterial/viral diseases picked up prior to feedlot entry. Cattle are also provided a radio frequency ear tag as required by the beef industry's National Livestock Identification Scheme. Cattle may be treated with Hormone Growth Promotants (HGP's) depending on customer requirements. HGP's are naturally occurring hormones used by some grass fed and grain fed beef producers to help cattle meet market weight at an earlier age. They have been used in the Australian beef industry for over 30 years and have been approved by the World Health Organisation and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority as safe for both consumers and cattle.
Cattle are then placed in a yard according to their breed, age, weight and likely market destination (ie domestic or export). The domestic market is our largest single market whilst 65% of Australian beef production is exported each year. Each yard is up to 6,000m2 in size - enough space for all cattle to exhibit natural behaviour in terms of movement and interaction. Plentiful quantities of clean fresh water and feed are supplied 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Feedlot cattle diets are formulated by nutritionists and comprise energy, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins. Final weights vary depending on the number of days cattle stay at the feedlot and the energy levels of the feed supplied. The average time cattle spend on feedlot is between 50-120 days.
Feedlots employ stockmen and women who supervise cattle each day. These key staff members are specifically trained in animal welfare, husbandry and handling along with quickly identifying any animals that may appear sick so that they can be isolated from other animals and treated as soon as possible. Feedlots also employ qualified veterinarians to oversee their animal health programs. As feedlot cattle are also protected from floods, fire, droughts and wild animals, mortality levels are lower than in extensive grazing systems.
The cattle feedlot industry considers that effective management of environmental, animal welfare and food safety issues are not only essential for sustainable agricultural production but protects farmers businesses for future generations. These issues are managed through the industry's quality assurance program, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS). This scheme was the first agriculturally based quality assurance scheme implemented in Australia and was proactively developed to ensure that every accredited feedlot exceeded community expectations. It is managed by state Governments and industry representatives and is recognised under various state legislation. Under the scheme, feedlots are independently audited each year to ensure compliance with environment, food safety, product integrity and animal welfare legislation. NFAS requirements are continually updated as developments in legislation, codes of practice, guidelines, technology, best management practice and science occur.
Feedlots manage manure by regularly removing it from yards. This manure is then generally composted and sold as a valuable soil conditioner to farms, nurseries and market gardens. Any runoff from yards is collected in ponds and also used to irrigate crops. Licensing and audit requirements within Australia's strict environmental legislation and the industries quality assurance program (NFAS) ensure that soil, water and air pollution is prevented. It is in the industry's and communities interest that lot feeders are good environmental stewards.
Feedlots offer a number of environmental benefits. Beef feedlot production is more efficient, with less land and cattle required, less stress placed on the environment and less greenhouse gas emissions produced. From an emissions perspective, superior nutrition enables feedlot cattle to reach market weights more quickly. Specifically, feedlot cattle compared to grass fed cattle, produce 38% less emissions per kg of beef produced. Control over production inputs and outputs provides more potential to reduce emissions further, reuse methane as a renewable energy source or use manure as a soil sequestration opportunity. Research to reduce emissions is the industry's number one priority with around $1 million budgeted towards this area annually.
Once cattle reach a marketable weight, they are then transported for processing. A series of steps are undertaken to minimise cattle stress during transport and prior to processing. This not only maximises cattle health and welfare but also leads to better beef eating quality. Steps to minimise cattle stress include reducing transport times, time in lairage and preventing cattle socialisation with unfamiliar animals.