Myths & Facts

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There are a number of myths about the Australian feedlot sector. These seem to be derived from feedlot practices undertaken overseas or by other intensive livestock industries. This page explains the facts about Australian cattle feedlot production.

Feedlot cattle spend their whole life in a feedlot

In Australia, feedlots are only used to ‘finish’ cattle ie get cattle to marketable weights. As a result they spend between 85-90% of their lives in an extensive pasture environment.

Feedlot cattle are placed in individual pens or are crowded together

Cattle are free to roam in yards of up to 6,000m2 in size ie around 14 basketball courts. This provides ample room for cattle to display their normal behaviour. Whilst legislation stipulates minimum space allowances of 9m2 per animal, lot feeders generally provide around 15-20m2 as this leads to improved animal health, welfare and productivity. 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.

The use of antibiotics in the Australian feedlot industry is the main contributor to resistance in human medicine

 In Australia, the overwhelming majority of antibiotics used in the cattle industry are not used in human medicine. In addition, they can only be accessed by veterinary prescription and must be used responsibly to not only prevent beef export bans as a result of potential beef antibiotic residues but also penalties under the industry’s independently auditable quality assurance program. Several Government reports over the last decade have confirmed that antibiotic resistance in Australian cattle was nil or extremely low with the most authoritative report undertaken in Australia to date (the JETACAR report ) concluding that resistance is due to over prescription in human medicine. The industry supports increased surveillance and monitoring to help the industry demonstrate that it uses antibiotics prudently and responsibly.

Hormone Growth Promotants (HGP’s) are only provided to feedlot cattle

HGP’s are implants of naturally occurring hormones that improve cattle growth rates (by 15-30%), feed efficiency (by 5-15%) and carcase leanness (by 5-8%). In reality, twice as many HGP’s are sold in the grass fed cattle sector than in the cattle feedlot sector. More importantly, HGP’s have been approved by regulatory authorities as safe for humans and cattle and have been used around the world for over 30 years without incident. In addition, the level of hormones in beef derived from treated cattle is 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.

Hormone Growth Promotants (HGP’s) are provided to all feedlot cattle

This is incorrect. In Australia, the decision to use HGP’s depends largely upon customer requirements. For instance some domestic and overseas customers require HGP free beef with the cattle feedlot sector delivering this customer requirement. It is estimated that around 55% of feedlot cattle are provided HGP’s.

Feeding grain to cattle is unnatural and results in negative cattle health impacts

It is easy to forget that grain is the seed of grass, hence is a natural product that cattle have been eating for millennia.   In fact cattle prefer a grain based diet. Feedlot cattle diets are developed by animal nutritionists and comprise grain (eg wheat, barley, sorghum) fibre (eg hay and silage), protein (eg sunflower and lupins), water, vitamins and minerals. 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.

Feeding grain to cattle takes food away from the worlds poor

The grains used in Australian beef cattle diets are principally barley, sorghum, wheat and corn. Notably, such grain is generally considered to be ‘feed grain’ ie a lower quality than that desired for human consumption or not used at all for human consumption (eg sorghum). Grain growers aim to sell their product to the highest value market which may or may not be for humans in third world countries. Globally, humans still directly consume nearly two-thirds of total cereal grain production, while beef cattle consume only 5 percent. Accordingly, it is a misnomer that Australian feedlot cattle consume grain destined for the world’s hungry. Cattle in contrast convert lower quality grain into a nutrient-dense food.

Lot feeders exploit cattle animal welfare to deliver super normal profits

In fact, 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.

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.

Grain fed beef is 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.

The feedlot industry is closed, clandestine and shameful of 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.

Feedlot beef is less healthy than grass fed beef

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.   Grass fed beef has a higher level of beneficial Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than grain fed beef. However, grass fed beef also has higher levels of unhealthy trans fats . Concentrations of saturated, monounsaturated and total fatty acids are similar between the two. 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 (ie 1125 milligrams vs 323 milligrams) . In comparison a 250 gram grain fed steak has 180 milligrams of omega 3.

Feedlots pollute the environment

Because beef production is more efficient in a feedlot, more beef can be grown using less cattle, emissions, land, feed, manure and water . Feedlot manure is also composted and sold as a valuable soil conditioner or can be used for renewable energy generation. Regardless of 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 in fact recognised within environmental legislation as meeting the compliance function of Government in several Australian states.

Feedlots produce higher greenhouse gas emissions than grass fed beef production

Despite the inputs required to produce grain fed beef, feedlots actually produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than grass fed cattle farms. Why? – Because of superior diets, feedlot cattle convert feed energy into beef more efficiently, reach marketable weights more quickly and hence produce fewer emissions over their lifetime. Australian life cycle research concludes that grain fed cattle produce 38% less Co2 equivalent emissions per kg of beef production compared to grass fed cattle . This research is supported by international studies.

Livestock produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector

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 11 per cent of emissions, and transport 15 per cent.

It takes 50,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef

According to a 2009 University of New South Wales red meat production life cycle assessment (LCA), it actually takes between 103 and 540 litres of water to produce a kilogram of red meat. The 50,000 litre figure incorrectly assumed that all rainfall that fell on land was used for beef production when the reality is that much of this rainfall ends up in rivers and ground water systems or is absorbed by trees and plants not grazed by cattle.

Feedlots are owned by foreign companies that displace family farms

In reality, the Australian feedlot industry is predominantly owned and run by families, is a major employer of other local families, is a major market for locally produced feedstuffs/ livestock and is a major contributor to economic activity in rural and regional areas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirms that 98% of feedlots are Australian owned and that 91% of farms are owned by families. Less than 2% of feedlots are owned by processors.

 

[1] The Joint Expert Advisory Committee on Antibiotic Resistance (1999), The use of antibiotics in food-producing animals: antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and humans, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/2A8435C711929352CA256F180057901E/$File/jetacar.pdf

[2] 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, sourced from the internet http://www.seattlecentral.edu/faculty/jwhorley/FatsInBeef.pdf

[3] 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, sourced from the internet http://www.seattlecentral.edu/faculty/jwhorley/FatsInBeef.pdf

[4] Heart Foundation, Q&A: Omega 3-Professionals, sourced from the internet, http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/sitecollectiondocuments/fish-fishoils-qa.pdf

[5]Capper , J. L. (2012) Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-FedBeef Production Systems, Washington State University, sourced from the internet http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/2/127

[6]Peters et al. (2009) “Red Meat Production in Australia: Life Cycle Assessment and Comparison with Overseas Studies“, Env. Sci. Tech

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