Good Food & Where it Comes From – The Facts About Feedlotting in Australia

by Amanda McInerney on 17/10/2012

I’m very aware of the fact that 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 choose to consider their food options do so from a well-informed foundation.  To that end I always endeavour to make sure I am as well informed as possible about a subject before I start “blowing off “about it.

As I’ve mentioned before, 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 US 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 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 to be deeply interesting, albeit somewhat confronting.

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 US 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, US 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 of my readers are aware, US grain-feeding is very 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 very 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 out of 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 and I’m also not 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 always 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.

I didn’t want this post to drone on for too long, but if anyone would like to know more about my experience at Beef City please don’t hesitate to contact me for a chat.

Edited – 19 October 2012

I must apologise – it has been pointed out to me that I was unclear about the invitation from Meat & Livestock Australia.  While they did pay for my flights and overnight accommodation, this was no junket.  I flew into Brisbane at 10.00 pm, was on a bus for a two hour drive to Toowoomba at 7.30 am the next morning, back on the bus for the two hour drive to Brisbane at 3.00pm  and back on a plane home by 7.15pm that night.  I arrived home at 11.00pm, exhausted – this was no pleasure jaunt.

 

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jo Whitton October 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for doing the legwork for us, Amanda! It’s easy to become complacent about where our food comes from, since we don’t always see it for ourselves… I’m happy to know it’s not as bad as I thought for those meat-eaters who live in the city! Where I live, our beef is grass-fed in lovely big paddocks all year long. And I’m lucky enough to be able to get my beef from friends who raise their own, so it’s practically organic as well. I guess the next step is to make sure you have a butcher who is ethical too – not adding preservatives, water, or meat glue to the meat! (And thankfully we have a small town butcher who wouldn’t dare – lol!!)

Thanks again, very informative article!
Jo :)

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef October 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I do eat meat – not heaps of it but I enjoy it and I have no problem eating it. I’m glad you went and can pass on that the cattle were not stressed or crying.

When I moved from the states to Australia I brought two sets of steak knives and John said, “What are those for?”

He was right. I ended up putting them out at a garage sale years ago. Australian beef needs nothing more than a dinner knife.

Celia October 18, 2012 at 8:23 am

Amanda, thanks for this interesting read. We have made a decision to only eat grassfed beef wherever possible – for health reasons as much as anything else – but it’s nice to know that the Australian feedlot system is still relatively gentle on the beast.

Michele Lally October 18, 2012 at 8:45 am

Its always confronting to go to a feedlot. It sounds like your experience was a positive one.
I’m reluctant however, to believe that all Australian feedlots are run like this – as you say there are over 95% that are family run, and you visited one of the largest in Australia – no doubt corporate run and extremely process and quality driven.
In my research, I have seen and heard the unthinkable in feedlots. Thousands standing in their own excrement as it pours with rain or its 45 degrees. No shade. No cold water. Crowded conditions. Open extreme conditions.
By no means am I suggesting your experience wasn’t what you say, nor that Beef City aren’t doing a fantastic job, but I feel that it still needs to be remembered that :
1) Naturally animals like to forage for pasture and food in large paddocks in natural surroundings
2) Grass fed animals have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (up to 6 times more in grass fed beef v grain fed) and low levels of unhealthy fats and dietary cholesterol. It also has plenty of antioxidants, vitamin A, and vitamin E. However, Grain fed animal fat has more unhealthy fats promoting high levels of cholesterol.
3) 95% feed lots are not run like Beef City.

I completely respect that not all beef can be raised on pasture, and seasonal conditions certainly do prove this theory, but in practise, those of us who wish to live sustainably, and follow the seasonal flourishes of food, would be more than happy to eat beef only at the time when it is in season. If the culture of Australia was not lead by the large monopoly supermarkets, who promote availability rather than seasonability, and we all ate high quality in small amounts, our health and our systems may be better off.

Again, just a point of view, not disagreeing, but just providing some further information. I have seen it first hand- as a farmer – and our animals are now producing 3 times as much weight in the same time with no change other than being happy little fellas in the paddock rather than on grain in a feedlot. It was this that has shown to me without any doubt, that animals should be kept in a natural environment.
Congrats on the piece Amanda… enjoyed reading it. Lets organise you come and see some sheep feed lots…. (although most won’t let me in these days!!)
Best
Michele x

Charlotte Wood October 18, 2012 at 8:45 am

Hi Amanda, thanks very much for this – I’ve never known much about feedlotting in Australia and it’s great to see someone explaining things. Can you tell me how long the cattle you saw spend on the feedlot? Or what the average time span for feedlotting Oz cattle is? As well, at the start of this post you said it was “somewhat confronting” – can you elaborate? Was it just the fact of the cattle being in the feedlot you found confronting, or some other aspect? So great to be able to ask this stuff of someone who’s seen it first hand.
best wishes,
Charlotte

Barbara | Creative Culinary October 18, 2012 at 10:37 am

Talk about timing Amanda. I recently spent a day at a seminar put on by Colorado State University and the Colorado Beef Council and learned more about the job of raising cattle than I’ve had in all of my years. I was struck by the passion of those involved; from the rancher who was brought to tears while talking about her love of what she did and how much she cared that she produced the best possible product with the least possible harm to the animals to the feedlot owner who voiced very similar sentiments. Dr. Temple Brandon spoke and we viewed a video that was difficult but I think necessary about how she has lead a revolution in the care and slaughter of animals. I’m continuing my research before writing an article but I will say I learned this. There are people in the US who care deeply about the quality of the existence of the beef that are being raised…and I’m sure there are some that would provide me with nightmares as well. But I’m weary of those that lament all organic; in this huge land of ours where cattle are raised not just for our 300,000,000 people, that is not realistic. All I can hope for is that the efforts to deliver the enormous demand are met more and more with efforts to have the quality of their lives before slaughter not be something that makes me feel guilty about my consumption.

Pigs and Bishops October 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

Thank you so much for this post. It’s something that has worried me a lot since reading ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, but I’ve found there isn’t much labelling of grass-fed beef going on. I knew that feedlots were used for finishing here, but worried that they would be miserable places. Of course we prefer to support smaller, organic farms, but it’s good to know that the situation here is different to that in the USA.

I hope this isn’t an ignorant question, but are sheep also sent to feedlots here?

Hotly Spiced October 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Great post, Amanda. You write so well. I’m so pleased to hear feed-lots in Australia are to a very high standard. The US needs to lift its game – its citizens shouldn’t have to eat meat that’s been fed chemicals, pesticides, anti-biotics and GM foods. xx

Amanda October 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Michele – Just to address some of your points -
Some of the largest and best run feedlots in Australia are family owned. There is no correlation between the quality of systems and programs in a family versus corporate feedlot.
Not all grass feed farms are run professionally either and feedlot properties are in fact governed by a quality assurance scheme – not a situation shared by grass fed properties. We’ve all heard of or seen stock left exposed or horribly neglected in paddocks. There are bad apples in every basket.
As I pointed out, the Australian lots are finishing properties and the beasts spend 80-90% of their lives in the paddock.
Over 60% of feedlot cattle in Australia have access to shade, all feedlot cattle have access to water 24/7 and all have license condition requirements regarding stocking density – again, this cannot be said of paddocked cattle.
I’m not trying to convert anyone or operate as a mouthpiece for a production model. I’ve already previously written on how we prefer to raise our own cattle but I do want people to be aware of the differences between our feedlot system and that of the US. I don’t think we deserve to be tarred with that brush.

Charlotte – I guess I was a little unclear about what exactly was confronting about my big day out. The feedlot was in no way confronting, on the contrary it all looked pretty relaxed. But standing on the killing floor of an abattoir is another matter all together – again, it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, but hardly “enjoyable”.

Barbara – clearly our brains are on the same wave-length. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on the issue.

Pigs & Bishops – there are indeed sheep feedlots and I know next to nothing about them. I guess that will have to be my next project.

Zoe October 19, 2012 at 7:17 am

Hi Amanda, you say Meat & Livestock invited you, but can you please clarify whether you were their guest, ie airfares, accommodation, meals?

Amanda October 19, 2012 at 8:32 am

Zoe – I’m sorry I didn’t clarify that, but I have now added my clarification to the text. I make no money from this blog and generally avoid any offers of free meals, etc. I was keen to see how this operation ran, but was in no position to pay to get to Toowoomba. While MLA did pay for my flights and overnight accommodation, this was no junket. I flew into Brisbane at 10.00 pm, was on a bus for a two hour drive to Toowoomba at 7.30 am the next morning, back on the bus for the two hour drive to Brisbane at 3.00pm and back on a plane home by 7.15pm that night. I arrived home at 11.00pm, exhausted – there was no time for meals, except for the barbecue lunch provided at Beef City.

Maeve October 19, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Thank you for a thoughtful -and thought-provoking- article.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella October 20, 2012 at 9:50 am

Interesting post Amanda. Do you know what percentage of cattle is grass versus grain when you say most? We seem to have a lot of grain fed beef so I’m curious.

Amanda October 22, 2012 at 9:11 am

Lorraine – Actually, while perceptions might be different, 75% of our beef slaughter here in Australia is grass-fed.

Miss Piggy October 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thanks for this story – I’ve always been curious about feedlot/grainfed beef – it’s quite a lot to “digest” so I’ve printed out your post to read later on. I’m sure I’ll be back with some other comments.

The Bush Gourmand October 30, 2012 at 11:19 am

Well done Amanda for doing the research. We can only hope that, with pressure, all our feedlots will become as well run as the one you visited.

Keep up the good work.

Lizzy (Good Things) November 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Lordy Amanda, how did I miss this piece from you!??! Clearly I have had my head down and bum in the air with my new job and then the #HumanBrochure… not to mention that my IN box is out of control at the moment…. apologies!

Thank you for such a well presented, well researched article. People like me, who were born and bred in the city and have had little or nothing to do with the production of meat, feedlots, abattoirs and so on, need to be informed. I am certainly curious and want to learn.

I, too, plan to go on such a visit with MLA and I won’t consider it a junket. I often bang on about humane choices, ethical eating and supporting the farmers and I want to know more. I think I caught sight of a feed lot up north, but we whizzed by so fast in the car. I didn’t think it was a particularly pleasant place for the animals to be, especially not in that heat.

And now I know why you were telling me about The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few weeks ago… thank you.

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