Frequently asked questions
What is a cattle 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.
How many feedlots are there in Australia?
There are approximately 400 NFAS accredited beef cattle feedlots in Australia with over 95% family owned and operated. They are generally located in areas which have a ready access to grain, cattle and water. Queensland is the largest state in terms of cattle numbers on feed with approximately 60% followed by NSW with 30%, Victoria with 7% and the remainder shared between South Australia and Western Australia.
What percentage of Australia’s cattle population are located in feedlots?
At any one time, around 4% of Australia’s cattle population is located in feedlots, with grain fed beef representing 30 - 40% of total beef production in Australia.
Do cattle spend their whole lives in a feedlot?
No. Australian feedlot cattle spend around 85-90% of their lives on pasture in an open range grass fed environment prior to feedlot entry. The average period cattle spend in a feedlot is between 50-120 days or around 10-15% of their lifespan.
Why are cattle placed in feedlots?
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 allow cattle to reach customer requirements in a timely and sustainable manner. 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).
How important is the feedlot industry to the Australian economy?
The cattle feedlot industry contributes $4.6 billion to the economy and employs some 2,000 people directly (2015-16 figures).
Why do we feed grain to cattle?
Grain is fed to cattle for a number of reasons. It is highly digestible, meets many of their nutritional requirements, is readily available, easily transported, and can be stored for reasonable lengths of time without major quality impacts. In comparison, unfortunately, grass is less digestible, often not available (due to drought or dry seasons) and whilst it can be cut as hay (and hence can be transported and stored) this hampers its ability to meet the higher nutritional requirements of young cattle. Remarkably, cattle actually prefer a grain-based diet over grass as it is higher in nutrition and energy. It is easy to forget that grain is essentially the seed of grass, therefore a natural product that cattle have been eating for millennia.
What type of grain is fed to cattle in Australian feedlots?
In Australia, the main grains used in feedlot rations are barley, wheat and sorghum. The cattle feedlot diet is formulated by qualified nutritionists to ensure that all animal health needs are met. The diet comprises energy, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins which are obtained from a diverse mix of such things as grain, silage, hay, molasses, oil seed meals and legumes. Whilst cattle require a short period of time to become accustomed to a grain-based diet, this process is easily managed by feedlot nutritionists and professional feedlot managers.
What is the feedlot process?
Generally, the following steps are undertaken:
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. Some 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 (i.e. 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 a feedlot is between 50-120 days or around 10-15% of their lifespan.
Once cattle reach a condition which meets market or customer requirements, 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.
How much space do cattle get in a feedlot?
Cattle in feedlots are able to roam freely in yards of up to 6000m2 each (i.e. around the size of 14 basketball courts). Whilst legislation stipulates minimum space allowances of 9m2 per animal, lot feeders generally provide around 13-15m2 for feedlot cattle as this leads to improved animal health, welfare and productivity. Such space allows cattle to exhibit all their normal behavioural characteristics, and this is reflected in the principles of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare. Interestingly, despite the provision of large areas, cattle tend to herd together as they are very social animals. This means that total yard space is often never fully utilised.
Is grass fed beef healthier than grain fed beef?
Whilst grass fed beef has a higher level of beneficial Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than grain fed beef, grass fed beef also has a higher level of unhealthy trans-fat. Concentrations of saturated, monounsaturated and total fatty acids are similar between grass and grain fed beef . Notably, beef, whether finished on grass or grain, is not a strong source of Omega 3’s compared to other foods such as fish. Therefore, the negligible Omega-3 difference between grass and grain fed beef is unlikely to have any discernible impact upon human health. To put this in perspective, a 250 gram salmon steak has 3.5 times the level of Omega-3 compared to a 250 gram grass fed steak (i.e. 1125 milligrams vs 322 milligrams) . Both grass and grain fed beef are excellent nutritional products which provide a wide range of essential nutrients including: iron, zinc, omega-3s, protein, B vitamins, selenium and vitamin D.
Do livestock produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector?
No. This is a misconception derived from the now debunked 2006 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, Livestock’s’ Long Shadow. A 2010 review of this FAO report by scientists from the University of California (Davis)* found that it used inconsistent methodologies to calculate greenhouse gas emissions between the two sectors. Specifically, they concluded that while a complete life cycle analysis was conducted for the livestock sector, it wasn’t for the transport sector thereby significantly underestimating the transport industries contribution. The FAO has since accepted the validity of this criticism. In Australia, according to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, livestock accounts for 10% of emissions, and transport 17%.
How does the feedlot sector manage environmental issues?
Beef production is more efficient in a feedlot as there is less land required, fewer cattle needed, less stress placed on the environment and less greenhouse gases emitted to produce the same amount of beef. Cattle feedlot manure is also collected, composted and sold as a valuable soil conditioner or can be used to sequester carbon or produce energy. Any runoff from yards is collected in ponds and also used to irrigate crops.
Despite these benefits, feedlots are regulated by federal, state and local environmental authorities to ensure there is no adverse environmental impact. In addition, the industry’s quality assurance program (NFAS) imposes requirements that are more stringent and encompassing than legislation with feedlots independently audited against NFAS and legislative requirements each year to ensure compliance. The integrity of NFAS is so highly regarded that it is recognised within environmental legislation as meeting the compliance function of Government in several states.
What are antibiotics and are they used in the feedlot sector?
Antibiotics are used to control infections caused by bacteria and other micro-organisms in humans and animals when they become ill. In farming, when livestock become ill antibiotics are one important tool to help producers ensure the health and welfare of their livestock. In Australia, the majority of antibiotics used in the cattle industry are not used in human medicine and those that are can only be accessed by veterinary prescription. Importantly all antibiotics used in animals pass stringent government approvals by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to ensure they are safe for humans and livestock.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria does not react to antibiotics used to treat them. Several Government reports over the last decade have confirmed that antibiotic resistance in Australian cattle was nil or low.
Nevertheless, Government and industry have instigated a number of measures to limit potential resistance in future. From a cattle feedlot industry perspective, they include the use of best management practices to improve nutrition and animal health prior to cattle arriving at the feedlot, the development and use of strategic animal health protocols, and biosecurity measures to minimize infections. The use of low stress stock handling and facilities, minimizing the mixing of unfamiliar cattle, pre-yard weaning and vaccination prior to feedlot entry are examples of such practices.
In 2018 the industry voluntarily established Antimicrobial Stewardship Guidelines. 62% of the industry has voluntarily adopted antibiotic stewardship plans in their businesses since the guidelines were released. This has been verified through 300 independent audits. More recently the industry has announced that the guidelines will be a mandatory requirement of the industry quality assurance program from the start of 2022 and plans are in place to encourage this. The industry supports increased surveillance and monitoring to help the industry demonstrate that it uses antibiotics prudently and responsibly.
What are Hormone Growth Promotants and are they used in the cattle feedlot sector?
Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) are supplements of naturally occurring hormones used by some grass and grain fed cattle producers to help cattle meet market weight at an earlier age. HGPs have been used in the Australian beef industry for over 30 years and have been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) as safe for both consumers and cattle. Whilst the EU currently bans HGP use, the WTO has determined that the ban is unjustified and not based on any scientific evidence.
The level of hormones in beef derived from HGP treated cattle is also significantly less than the natural level of hormones found in many other products consumed every day by the general public. For instance, a serving of beer contains 7 times the level of hormones as a serving of HGP treated beef – a serving of peas 179 times and ice cream 273 times. Importantly, the decision to use hormones is determined by customer requirements.
Is the animal welfare of the cattle exploited at the expense of profits?
Lot feeders have an economic incentive to provide good animal welfare as it results in improved productivity and beef eating quality. In short, happy animals are profitable animals. Cattle lot feeding margins are small and profits are only achieved if productivity and eating quality are high. Lot feeders receive a premium for higher eating quality beef when cattle meet the requirement of the Meat Standards Australia program. Notably, the cattle feedlot industry developed the program as it is better able to produce higher eating quality beef.
Don’t cattle prefer an extensive pasture-based environment?
Research conducted by the CSIRO has determined that cattle when provided a choice between a feedlot and pasture-based environment, actually prefer the feedlot. This is because cattle willingly trade off the benefits of the grass fed environment for the superior nutrition available at a feedlot. On average, feedlot cattle also have lower mortality rates than grass fed cattle. This is because feedlots employ veterinarians to oversee health programs, animal nutritionists to determine and monitor cattle diets; and highly trained staff to supervise them on a daily basis. Feedlot cattle are also protected from starvation, floods, fire, droughts and predators. Given that there is a close correlation between cattle stress, cattle productivity and beef eating quality, it is in the interests of all grain and grass fed beef producers to reduce stress levels. The fact that the feedlot industry implemented the eating quality program Meat Standards Australia because it is more able to secure premiums under the program for higher eating quality beef is further evidence that feedlot cattle are not stressed.
Is grain fed beef cheaper than grass fed beef?
The reverse is actually true. This is intuitively logical given that feedlots have higher average costs of production compared to grass fed cattle operations. The costs associated with expert input from veterinarians, animal nutritionists along with ration ingredients are for example significantly higher than for grass fed cattle production.
How open is the feedlot industry regarding its practices?
The Australian feedlot industry is in fact very open, transparent and proud of its systems and practices. The industry conducts thousands of feedlot tours each year, regularly meets with the RSPCA and major retailers, actively discusses its practices in the media and provides a significant amount of information on its website. Notably, the industry’s quality assurance program is far more stringent and encompassing than legislative requirements and is superior to systems within virtually every other agriculture industry in the country. The program is independently owned and managed to the industry and requires that feedlots be independently audited on an annual basis. Audit results are provided to Government representatives who comprise the majority of participants on the programs management committee.
1. Peters et al. (2009) “Red Meat Production in Australia: Life Cycle Assessment and Comparison with Overseas Studies“, Env. Sci. Tech
2. Capper , J. L. (2012) Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-FedBeef Production Systems, Washington State University.
3. The Joint Expert Advisory Committee on Antibiotic Resistance (1999), The use of antibiotics in food-producing animals: antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and humans.
4. Ponnampalam, E et al (2006), Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health, RMIT University, Melbourne and Department of Primary Industries.
5. Ponnampalam, E et al (2006), Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health, RMIT University, Melbourne and Department of Primary Industries.
6. Heart Foundation, Q&A: Omega 3-Professionals.