Photo: We Animals Media
“ Beef cattle at a Quebec feed lot, waiting to be sent to slaughter. ”
Almost 3.5 million beef cows and 220,000 beef calves, were sent to slaughter in Canada in 2020. In 2022, there are about 12 million beef cattle, on 60,000 beef farms and feedlots. Alberta and Saskatchewan combined, produce approximately 60% of Canada’s beef cows. Followed by Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.
In Canada, the lives of beef cattle begin at a cow-calf operation. Heifers (young females) are normally bred at 12 to17 months of age and give birth for the first time by 24 months of age. After a pregnancy of nine months, the cow will usually give birth to one calf that weighs about 40 kg (88 lbs). Calves are raised alongside their mothers on pasture and graze with the herd. Calves are weaned from their mothers at around 6-8 months of age, and after they reach a weight of approximately 273-409 kg (600-900 lbs), are transferred to a feedlot. Some of the heifers will be kept to replace their mothers, who by about 7 years of age, are removed from the breeding herd, and sent to slaughter. Some of the male calves (bulls) will be kept to replace their fathers, who are also sent to slaughter.
A feedlot is a large, open, dirt lot, usually, outdoors, that is sectioned into many group pens. Here, the cattle are fattened up until they reach a weight of about 545 kg (1200 lbs). By this weight, they are about 18 months of age or younger, and are sent to slaughter.
Until now, artificial insemination (AI) of cattle has not been used widely in Canada’s beef industry, but genetic evaluation of bulls has improved in recent years, making bull selection more reliable. Sexed semen and the ability to select specific traits are now available, increasing the need for use of AI. Considering the costs of natural services and lost genetic opportunities, AI is more profitable.
Main concerns for the welfare of beef cattle
- Horn removal. Beef cattle can be dehorned or disbudded (removal of the horn bud before attachment to the skull). Disbudding is done by chemical burns or hot irons without the use of pain control. Removal of horns after skull attachment is not preferred due to pain and other complications, even though pain control is used. Dehorning is done by using tools that gouge, slice and cut into the skin of the calf. While the number of beef cattle with horns has been decreasing in recent years due to the use of hornless genetics through AI, dehorning and disbudding are still common practices in Canada.
- Castration. Bulls (male calves) are castrated if not used for breeding. This is to reduce aggression and improve the taste of the meat. In Canada, pain control is not used in castrating bulls under six months of age. Castration is done by surgically removing the testicles or by cutting off the blood supply with tight rubber rings.
- Branding. Cattle are branded for identification purposes. Branding still occurs on some Canadian farms even though other forms of identification are available. In Canada, there is no mandatory pain control when cattle are branded.
- Feedlot operations: Cattle sent to feedlots are mixed with those from other farms, which increases the risk of disease. Cattle also undergo a switch from a pasture diet to a high-calorie, grain-based diet. If this transition is not made gradually, it can cause severe and lasting gastrointestinal pain.
- Lameness: Cattle that are lame, experience pain and distress, which reduces their ability to access feed and water. Lameness in feedlot cattle is often the result of infections due to wet and muddy pen conditions, and also from poor facility design, which can result in injuries.
- Weaning methods: Weaning causes 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 extreme weather: Because beef cattle spend most of their lives grazing outdoors on pasture or outside in feedlots, they are exposed to extreme heat, cold and other poor weather conditions. The cattle may not always have suitable protection from the elements. Many die from heat exhaustion, dehydration or freezing to death. During the winter months, sometimes their only source of water is snow.