Beef cattle & welfare

UK beef is produced from specific beef breeds; these may be native British breeds such as Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and South Devon, or from continental breeds such as Charolais and Limousin.

Beef cattle may be produced from dairy breeds where a bull is crossed with a cow, usually by artificial insemination (AI). If a farmer crosses a pure-bred dairy cow (e.g. Friesian) with a beef bull (Hereford) then the crossbreed calf produced will be slaughtered as meat as it has 50% beef characteristics (they would usually be a low milk yielder). If the farmer crosses a dairy cow with a dairy bull they will hope that the offspring is a pure-bred dairy heifer so that it can replace the mother when her milk production decreases (10).

Beef calves from a dairy herd are taken from their mothers and fed formula before early weaning at around 5-6 weeks. Many calves will be sold at market after 10-20 days to specialist calf rearers and beef producers.

Calves have to endure castration, disbudding and dehorning. There are 3 methods of castration used; a rubber ring which restricts blood to the scrotum which can only be used in the first 7 days of life, bloodless castration by crushing the spermatic cords of calves under 2 months old, and castration by a veterinary surgeon under anaesthetic. Disbudding is the removal of horn buds before calves are 2 months old. This should be carried out under anaesthetic with a heated iron. Dehorning involves cutting/sawing horn and other sensitive tissues under anaesthetic with appropriate pain relief; ideally by a veterinary surgeon and only if it is necessary for the herd’s welfare (1).

The most intensive systems involve keeping bull calves indoors or in yards all year round. Bull calves are used as they grow quickly. Increasing numbers are housed in pens on concrete or slats without bedding. Housed animals are confined in high numbers and are fed cereal-based diets – these are often used where a rapid turnover of livestock is required. Cereals include barley, wheat and oats. In addition, a certain amount of roughage (mostly cereal straw) may also be required in the diet to prevent metabolic disorders from hindering production. Approximately 15 to 20% of British beef comes from intensively farmed cattle (11). Some beef cattle are housed in the winter months when the grass has stopped growing.

The less intensive systems allow the calves (steers and heifers) to remain with their mothers and they are allowed to graze for 1 or 2 summers and may be brought indoors during the winter. These cattle have a predominantly grass-based diet; this is most popular in the UK due to the ease of growing high quality grass. Summer grazing cattle may require supplementary vitamins and minerals, whereas winter-feeding is often supplemented by the use of conserved grass forage (hay/silage), or other home-grown feeds. Bought-in feedstuffs include cereal-based concentrates, maize gluten, sugar beet-based feedstuffs, oil seed rape meal, and soya-based products. Some calves from a beef herd stay with their mothers for 6 to 10 months of their life until they are fully weaned and then separated for rearing. These calves are usually known as suckled calves and are sold on to be fattened for beef or reared as herd replacements. Animals are reared to a heavier weight (approx. 300kg) and slaughtered between 1-2 years. Animals which graze generally take longer to reach slaughter weight compared to those fed on concentrates or cereal-based diets. Beef cattle are not fed synthetic hormones or growth promoters in the UK or Europe.

Veal is a tender ‘white’ meat from calves slaughtered at 4-5 months. In the UK, veal calves may be reared in groups housed in straw yards/pens and fed on milk replacer. Previously they were reared in solitary solid-sided wooden crates with slatted floors (veal crates) but these were banned in the UK in 1990.

In March 2006, the 1996 ban imposed on live exports due to the BSE crisis was lifted. This meant that thousands of British cattle once again faced harrowing journeys abroad - with calves destined for European veal production systems which are outlawed here. DEFRA figures for 2008 indicate that 102,081 cattle were exported from the UK for slaughter or further fattening. Between May 2006 and July 2008, almost 250,000 calves were transported from the UK to the continent, some enduring journeys of 50 hours or more (2,5,8).

From 1st January 2007, veal crates were banned across the EU, including Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Italy. These systems had no requirement to use bedding, calves had no access to roughage in their diets and were likely to be transported long distances (9).

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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