An Overview of Current Beef Welfare Concerns


   James W. Oltjen, Ph.D, and Frank M. Mitloehner, Ph.D.

Animal Management Systems and Air Quality Extension Specialists, Department of

 Animal Science, University of California, Davis, CA 95616


            Although beef cattle welfare issues have not attracted as much concern as for those for other farm animals, it does not mean that they are not important, both to those who have a direct association with the beef industry as well as to those looking in from the outside. Progress has been made in understanding beef welfare since the last Housing, Husbandry, and Welfare of Beef Cattle publication (AWIC, 1995), and the new bibliography presents an expanding database. This introduction is to share our views on current beef welfare issues as they affect beef cattle raised in the United States, and we direct readers to the bibliography following for more in-depth information on the welfare issues.

            Knowledgeable beef producers are concerned about the welfare of their animals. They know that cattle treated correctly will perform well. If even a small proportion of beef producers provide less than optimum care, it is a concern to other beef producers and all others associated with beef production. Therefore it is in everyone’s best interest that animals receive proper care throughout the production cycle.

            One of the main animal welfare concerns in beef cattle production is that of pain and distress, especially pain inflicted by normal husbandry procedures other than common day to day stress in typical production. There is little concern, for example, about cows on rangelands, as long as nutrition is not severely restricted. Rather, dehorning, castration, and branding are husbandry procedures which can cause pain and discomfort and if done incorrectly may result in subsequent health problems. Often these procedures are justified with the argument that a little pain now will prevent more pain later. Other procedures, such as confinement, medication, and research protocols (e.g., blood sampling, cannulation) also merit attention. Economics and research needs drive these, and careful attention and justification is warranted.

            Less acute but still distressful are those issues related to the animals’ environment. These issues are often related to climate, because beef cattle are normally raised completely outdoors in the United States. Although housing to ameliorate adverse climates exists, it is generally not economical for most producers to provide. Therefore, extreme natural conditions can result in cattle that are heat and/or cold stressed. Excessive dust and/or mud particularly in feedlot settings are environmental factors that can adversely affect welfare as well.

            Another aspect of the environment is the relative abundance or scarcity of feed resources. Because beef cattle are often raised extensively with a seasonal restriction of nutrition, they undergo a subsequent loss of body fatness. Drought and the resulting overstocking for the available feed resources can also reduce body fatness. Thus, these natural temperature (acute) and nutritional stresses (chronic) are welfare issues potentially important in beef production.

            The following is a short preview of the different sections that follow in this bibliography. While not complete, it introduces the reader to the recent work in the area relating to beef cattle production.



            Many references in the Behavior section deal with cattle temperament. Temperament is discussed with respect to the effects of breed (especially Bos indicus breeds), genetics, environment, and handling as well as the effects of temperament on carcass characteristics and performance. Numerous papers cover the area of human animal interrelationships, and low stress cattle handling. Several handling methods that potentially affect cattle behavior, pain, and stress are discussed such as dehorning, and castration, and branding. Some cover animal stress and how it relates to environment stimuli (e.g., noise, light) or handling practices. Another main focal area is on feeding/grazing behavior and effects of feeding management on behavior and performance of cattle.


            Most of the citations in the Breeding section are related to either genetic evaluation or to selection methods and criteria. Traditional breed evaluation continues; tropical breeds and crosses were emphasized, although high marbling breeds like Wagyu were also included. Heterosis expected between breeds was often part of the research. Some papers covered effects for environments in specific countries (e.g. tropical adaptation), or bull tests. Newer tools for evaluation such as ultrasound for carcass evaluation and markers, microsatellites, QTL's, and genetic identification and other DNA methods are proliferating. A limited literature on new techniques in mixed model analysis was presented. Selection for traits and awareness of the interactions between traits was reported for growth, carcass composition, energetic efficiency, temperament, dystocia, endophyte fescue adaptation, and bull breeding soundness. Breeding objective definition and indexes are continually being developed, tested, and refined.



            A large section on Feeding is included in the bibliography. An update of the Seventh Edition of the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, was published in 2000. Surveying this section, management strategy (e.g. limit feeding of high concentrate diets), energy expenditure, hormonal profile (IGF-1, somatotropin, and exogenous steroids or ractopamine) and their inter-relationships with metabolism, efficiency, and carcass characteristics is of great interest but will continue to provide challenges to researchers. Also, the appropriateness of various forms of energy or protein supplements for given production situations are on ongoing area of research, along with continuing interest in trace mineral (Cu, Mb, Se) needs and renewed interest in vitamins D and E for finishing cattle and their interaction with beef and carcass quality. There are a number of studies testing byproducts as beef cattle feeds including excreta from swine or poultry or their bedding, and further feed evaluation with new interest in novel grains such as high-oil corn, or genetically modified plants. Grain processing is also covered.

            Grazing system affects nutritional intake, and research on continuous versus rotational grazing, timing of pasture use, the distribution of cattle and other grazing behavior continue. Matching seasonal forage supply with needs of the cow herd is critical, and supplemental feeding strategy, stocking rate, and even changing calving season effects on reproduction and calf productivity are under investigation. Antibiotic use is under scrutiny, and several papers deal with this issue. Also, the effect of different feeds on pathogenic bacteria is not resolved. Diet influence on methane and ammonia production, of interest for environmental effects, is being addressed. Heat stress may partially be alleviated by feeding strategy (timing, amount, and type of diet). Nutrition is inter-related with immunity.


            The General section covers a wide range of welfare related topics from beef handling guidelines in the United States, European countries, and Australia, to sustain ability of beef production systems, agro-ecology, and organic farming. Most papers address these beef welfare issues on a national scale (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Canada).


            In 1998 The National Animal Health Monitoring System released a study of the health practices in the cow-calf segment of the beef production industry, and began a new study of the feedlot industry which has not yet been released. However, much has been published since the last NAL beef bibliography on disease and other conditions that affect beef cattle health. These include papers on acidosis, bloat, bovine herpes virus, bovine immune deficiency virus, bovine viral diarrhea, bovine respiratory disease, bovine respiratory syncytial virus, drug-induced hepatitis, dystocia, ectoparasites, leptospirosis, liver abscesses and flukes, mastitis, nematodes, neospora, poison plants, salmonella, and skin tumors. Feedlot health items covered are mass medication of (usually) incoming cattle and appropriate treatment protocols, the impact of feedlot diseases, and using techniques, such as infrared thermography, to detect inflammations such as fever or improper implant technique. Nutritional factors interact with immunity, in certain situations; trace minerals, probiotics, and vitamin E were shown to stimulate immune response or help prevent disease. Injection site lesions in meat were investigated for causes, including clostridial vaccinations. There were a few papers investigating the effect of potential environmental hazards (oil and gas wells, composting) on health.


            A main focus of the Housing section is on prevention of heat and cold stress in cattle. Numerous papers address the use of shades, water sprinklers/misters, and windbreaks to mitigate adverse climatic effects. Climatic conditions have to be severe to show advantageous effects of e.g., shade on behavior, physiology, performance, and carcass characteristics. The main reason for this finding is that cattle are well adapted to a wide range of climates and have the ability to compensate for performance losses once stressful conditions are over. The area of thermoregulation with respect to the animal's metabolism and physiology is discussed. Numerous papers address floor types and how they affect cattle lameness, cleanliness, performance, and carcass characteristics. Cattle preferences regarding floor type (floors covered with mats, sawdust, straw, or slatted floors) are presented.


The Husbandry section deals with issues related to potentially painful practices like castration, branding, implanting, and dehorning. Castration is discussed with respect to effects on performance, immunology, and inflammatory responses. Methods to control pain during castration like the use of novel anesthesia are discussed as well as recommendations given regarding age at castration to reduce welfare problems. Effects of branding methods from hot iron, over freeze- to sham-branding on cortisol levels and pain sensitivity are compared and hot iron branding identified as the most stressful method. Furthermore, branding method was identified as affecting the ease of movement through chutes. Several papers compare implant strategies and effects on beef cattle performance. Dehorning is identified as an important welfare issue related to production traits and welfare and several methods compared to minimize adverse effects on cattle welfare.

Production Systems and Management

            A number of studies in the Production Systems and Management section focus on the sustain ability of beef production systems. Several go further and explore ethological and/or ecological aspects, including organic beef production and marketing. Also in this section are systems analysis studies of beef forage systems, costs and benefits of marketing alternatives, and relationships between costs of production and profit. Body composition models are included here due to the need for them in management systems to predict growth and market value. There are also a few papers on production in other countries. In particular finishing cattle in feedlots is increasing in a number of foreign locations. Rotation and other generally more intensive grazing practices, along with analysis of relative overstocking has been a growing area of interest. Finally, in the Production Systems and Management section are some references to other beef husbandry practices such as early weaning and changing the calving season.


            Breeding or crossbreeding, particularly in the tropics between Bos taurus and Bos indicus, effects on reproduction have been investigated. Other factors looked at that affect reproduction were trace minerals, endophyte fescue, body condition score, calving season, antibiotic use, melengesterol acetate, age, and suckling. Estimators of fertility traits such as markers on sperm, scrotal or testicular size, whole milk progesterone, and monitoring devices were evaluated. Reproductive behaviors were related to exposure to the opposite sex before breeding, other mating stimuli, and group management factors. Systems analysis of reproduction and prediction of pregnancy rate were attempted. Estrus synchronization was a major area of study, with methods and protocols nutritional interactions, calf removal, number of inseminations and induced ovulation all targeted. Spaying, embryo transfers, caesarian sections are topics of further studies.


            The factors affecting carcass quality, management (e.g., castration age and method) and growth path, nutrition, and genetics (breed, temperament traits) are of great concern. Models to account for some of these effects have been proposed, and composition prediction for growing or adult cattle are offered, as well as studies on breed and body condition effects on yield and value of cull cows. Ultrasound is used as a tool to estimate composition of live cattle, especially intramuscular and back fat. Myostatin, as well as the effect of intravenous glucose or electrolytes on meat quality was studied. Season and stocking pressure was related to stress susceptibility and incidence of dark cutters. Also, an evaluation of the USDA grading standards was reported. Conjugated linoleic acid, important for its health benefits, was higher in forage fed or organically produced beef.

            Beef safety is another concern, with trace-back and electronic identification systems, or microbial contamination and its relation to diet and location of contamination in the forefront. Other studies investigated frequency of injection site lesions; estrogen residues in the animal; disease monitoring, especially tuberculosis at slaughter; and liver abscesses. Transport stress, and welfare and hygiene pre-slaughter, as well as vocalization and neuroendocrine response was correlated to handling or equipment problems at slaughter plants.


            Transport issues are mainly discussed with respect to food safety and cattle welfare. Effects of cattle transport on food safety with respect to shedding of Escherichia coli O157, Salmonella, and Campylobacter are of concern and prevalence levels of these microbes discussed. Welfare issues related to transport are pre-transport cattle handling, transport distance, and space allowance. One paper offers tips for low stress handling.

            The following bibliography will be of interest to scientists, veterinarians, extension specialists, students, and others, wishing to explore the broad range of current issues relating to the care and welfare of beef cattle. It is by no means complete but represents a sampling of the world wide literature available for review.


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