What's your beef

... and where did it come from? How much do you know about your steak's journey from paddock to plate?
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01.From farm to feedlot

Beef production

When it comes to the steak on your dinner table, there's more than one path it may have taken from the paddock to your plate.

We've looked at the major steps on the journey:

Down on the farm

There are more than 70,000 beef producers in Australia managing 27 million head of cattle. But the cattle aren’t all treated in the same way. The market has developed two main ways of producing meat to satisfy consumer demands.

  • The sustainable path: For farms practising this model, animal treatment, tracing of origin (or provenance) and soil health are central themes, as is the health value of the meat. Rotational grazing, where cattle are moved around rather than being left in one pasture, is popular as it gives the grass an opportunity to regrow and minimises compaction of soil. However, this model is resource intensive, and it can result in more expensive meat for consumers.
  • The industrial production model is how most beef finds its way to the supermarket shelves. Here, making a profit tends to takes precedence over soil health, provenance and in some cases even quality of the meat. Cows raised this way generally spend their early months or years on a farm, before moving to a feedlot to be fattened on a high-protein grain diet. Soil aids, such as phosphate, can provide farmers with near immediate boosts in pasture growth.

While the chemicals used under the industrial model don’t pose a direct risk to consumers, the nutritional standard of grass that has been exposed to chemicals and not allowed to flourish naturally by rotational grazing and complementary farming methods is questioned by advocates of biodynamics. Some are critical of the nutritional density (the protein content and number of other nutrients present) of beef produced under industrial practices.

Feedlot frenzy

A feedlot, or “finishing yard”, is a confined area where cattle are fed a high-protein, grain-based diet to maximise weight gain before sale. As most cattle are sold by the kilogram rather than by quality, it’s common for farmers to feel pressured to produce cattle of a marketable weight as quickly as possible, regardless of factors that can affect animal growth, such as climate and rainfall. This has contributed to the development of feedlots. Stocking density

Dougal Gordon, CEO of the Australian Lot Feeders’Association, the peak national body for the feedlot industry, says that in addition to this, consumer demand for grain-fed beef has encouraged feedlot “finishing” of cattle. Grain-fed beef has a softer texture and richer flavour than pasture-fed beef. In order to market beef as "grain fed" in Australia, cows must spend between 60 and 70 days in a feedlot on a high-protein grain diet. For export, this requirement increases to 100 days.

Australia currently has about 600 accredited feedlots and according to Gornon, between 70-80% of all cattle produced for our two major supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, spend 60 - 70 days in a feedlot before being taken to the abattoir.

Glenys Oogjes, executive director of animal protection organisation Animals Australia, says that while the feedlot sector is well regulated, there are some problems with the current standard.

“There is a problem inherent in taking a grazing animal out of a paddock and putting it on a high-protein grain diet in a pen. From a behavioural and welfare point of view, we are concerned.”

Inadequate shelter for animals in feedlots is also a concern. Some do offer shade, according to Gordon, but it is not a legal requirement. The RSPCA argues that even cattle breeds adapted to hotter climates naturally seek shade, and feedlots should provide this shade without compromising the ability to dry out the pens following wet weather. Gordon says about 60% of cattle in all feedlots currently have access to shade and believes the remainder are mostly located in southern and alpine areas.

Upon arriving at a feedlot, some cattle are given hormone growth promotants (HGPs). While the World Health Organization and the Australian government allow the use of HGPs in animals for human consumption, the EU does not. Gordon says animals that have been injected with HGPs – which can improve growth rates by 15-30% – aren’t inferior to those that haven’t, although it does reduce marbling, which contributes to flavour. Coles has stopped selling beef with HGPs and Woolworths also offers some HGP-free beef products.

Accredited feedlots are independently audited on an annual basis for animal welfare, environmental and food safety issues. The program is also independently owned and managed with Government representatives ensuring that any issues are resolved appropriately. However, audits are announced and results are not publically available.



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