I have no illusions. The majority of people do not think too hard about where their food comes from. There are lots of reasons for that – life can be a pretty distracting business for many and they just don’t need another thing on their plate (pardon my pun) to cause anxiety and emotional or financial stress. What concerns me, though, is that those who find their way to my site and others like it and actively choose to consider their food options do so from a well-informed foundation. To that end I always endeavor to make sure I am as well informed as possible about a subject before I start “blowing off “about it.
I’m a carnivore and a (very) small-scale Angus beef producer, so have a direct interest in how beef is produced in this country. My cattle live a very pleasant life indeed and their end is relatively quick and clean, but for some time now I’ve been curious about what happens to other cattle. While it would be nice if all livestock could avoid the industrial food system, this is unlikely to happen any time soon and I wanted to try to understand how the general beef production model works. These days we hear much that is negative in relation to U.S. feedlots, so I’ve been interested in learning about the conditions on Australian feedlots and comparing our system with the the US model. Recently, I have had several requests for information regarding the perceived difficulties of sourcing grass-fed beef and a query regarding the Australian commitment to corn crops and government subsidies of them, so clearly I’m not the only one who needs to become a little more well-informed on this subject.
There are quite a lot of clean, comfortable and slightly detached ways to go about researching a topic these days, but never let it be said that your trusty correspondent was reluctant to face up to the cold hard facts of life – which is how I found myself at one of Australia’s largest feedlots and processing plants just outside of Toowoomba in Queensland last week. I was pleased to be able to accept an offer from Meat & Livestock Australia to see, absolutely first-hand, exactly how feedlotting is operated here and, while it is a little tricky to use the word “enjoy” in this context, I certainly found the experience enlightening and even bracing.
Housing cattle in feedlots is an intensive animal feeding technique designed to fatten livestock and encourage the deposit of more fat in the beast’s muscles – known as marbling. There are approximately 600 accredited beef cattle feedlots in Australia, with over 95% family-owned and -operated. In the U.S. the feedlots are much, much bigger than any here in Australia, often holding 150,000 to 200,000 head of cattle. Beef City, the lot I visited, has a 25,000-head capacity and we have only one other which is larger than that in this country.
The fact is most Australian beef is grass-fed and even feedlot cattle spend 80-90% of their lives on grass, only being sent to feedlots for “finishing”. Cattle are generally sent to feedlots when poor pasture quality during poor seasons or during the dryer winter months, and in southern Australia during the dryer summer months, can result in low weight gain and the need for feedlot finishing. In comparison, U.S. beef cattle are introduced to a grain diet very early – indeed, some are weaned on to it – and generally spend a much larger percentage of their life confined in small feedlot yards.
As I’m sure many are aware, U.S. grain-feeding is heavily dependent upon a ration of GM corn by-products (obtained from ethanol production), with the addition of antibiotics to prevent the infections that will arise as a result of the stress placed on the beasts. Once again, this is not at all the case here. Australian feedlots use a much more varied combination of wheat, barley and sorghum – all grains which cattle prefer to grass – and follow strict transitional protocols over a period of weeks to ensure that the beasts have no rumen problems from a sudden change in diet. Antibiotics are NOT used as preventatives here in Australia and are only ever introduced on direct evidence of infection.
Australian feedlots are regulated through the industry’s quality assurance program, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme which, in 1995, was the first agricultural quality assurance scheme introduced in Australia and means that every lot in the country is individually audited every year. Environmental aspects are of significant importance here in Australia, too, and all feedlots have to provide monitoring data on soil quality and water tables annually.
My own impressions of Beef City in no way contradicted any of these facts. I was one of a group who were visiting the lot as part of their training and we were taken through every single part of the operation. Nothing was hidden from us, no question went unanswered, and the only thing we were requested not to photograph was the actual kill in the abattoir – not an unreasonable request, I thought.
The cattle in the yards (which were ALL shaded) were content, relaxed, but alert and very curious about the visitors – just as my own cattle in the paddocks are. They are very inquisitive beasts and like to know what is going on. Another thing which is worth knowing about cattle is that they are highly “vocal” and leave you in no doubt if they are unhappy or distressed about something. There was not a murmur out of this lot – apart from the odd contented conversational lowing – and certainly not the calling I hear from mine if one or two of them become separated, or the anxious bellowing of the cows when the calves are separated from the herd. If they were uncomfortable or distressed, they sure weren’t talking about it.
I’m not aiming to convert anyone with the above thoughts, nor am I posing as any sort of a mouthpiece for industrial agriculture – this is simply an issue which is of personal interest to me. As it turns out, the facts are a good deal less confronting than I expected and I’m nowhere near as horrified as I thought I’d be. Large-scale meat production not going to go away and, if we are going to eat it, there is no point in being squeamish about how it gets on our plates. As meat-eaters we have a responsibility to the beast that dies for our dinner and that responsibility includes treating it respectfully while it is alive. Of course, that will not happen in every case, but the standards which are in place are helping us get there. I believe that, as far as Australian beef production is concerned, we are on the right track.