Animal Welfare: What Are the Issues for the Feedlot Industry?

Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 Take home message | Introduction | Welfare concerns for the feedlot industry | Routine management procedures | Environment and handling | References

This is a fact sheet from the Animal Welfare section of the Alberta Feedlot Management Guide, Second Edition published September 2000. The 1200 page guide is available for purchase on CD-ROM.

Take Home Message

  • Animal welfare is a multifaceted concept combining animal, technical, legal, and human perspectives.
  • From an animal’s perspective, welfare may be defined as the ability to cope with the environment.
  • In general, poor welfare results in the reduced fitness of the animal.
  • The legal and human definitions of welfare have been described in terms of freedoms, needs and rights. The term ‘right’ simply refers to the human consideration of animals.
  • Establishment of animal rights and freedoms provide a standard to ensure that animals under the care of humans are in ‘good’ physical and mental health and able to adapt to their environment without suffering.
  • We have a moral obligation to treat animals humanely.
  • Public concerns about welfare should not be confused with the ‘animal rights’ movement.
  • The codes of practice serve as a guideline for the proper care and handling of livestock. Ultimately, they serve to increase the consciousness of the livestock industry and promote self imposed standards instead of forced legislation.
  • Welfare concerns for the feedlot industry include:
    • Castration;
    • Dehorning;
    • Branding;
    • Pen Conditions;
    • Handling.

In the past decade, a social revolution regarding our moral obligations to animals has occurred. This revolution includes farm animals. It has become necessary for livestock producers to understand what animal welfare is and how it affects them.

A single, concise definition of animal welfare is difficult to provide. Animal welfare is a multifaceted concept combining animal, technical, legal, and human perspectives.

From an animal’s perspective, welfare may be defined as the ability to cope with the environment. This definition includes both the ‘long term’ and ‘current’ state of the animal. An animal’s ability to cope under various circumstances can be objectively assessed, thus establishing a technical definition of welfare. Variables that are commonly used to assess welfare include; reproduction and mortality rates, adrenal activity (stress related), amount of abnormal behavior, severity of injury, and the degree of immunosuppression or incidence of disease. In general, poor welfare results in the reduced fitness of the animal.

The legal and human definitions of welfare have been described in terms of freedoms, needs and rights. The legal definition establishes a minimum standard for the treatment of animals. Any rights an animal may have are given to them by people. The term ‘right’ simply refers to the human consideration of animals. We can accept that animals have a right to basic needs.

The acknowledgement and establishment of animal rights and freedoms provide a standard to ensure that animals under the care of humans are in ‘good’ physical and mental health and able to adapt to their environment without suffering. Recommendations to accommodate the most basic needs of animals were first outlined in Europe and included the following; freedom from fear, hunger and malnutrition, thermal or physical distress, disease or injury, and the freedom to express normal behavior.

Why should animal welfare concern producers? First and foremost, we have a moral obligation to treat animals humanely. Aside from our obligation to animals we also have a responsibility to address welfare concerns of the public. Despite what is frequently believed, the public do have some valid welfare concerns about current management practices. Examples include the ‘downer’ animal issue and the use of anaesthetics for routine procedures. These are valid concerns because, as producers, we run the risk of becoming desensitized to routine management procedures that cause pain. Public concerns about welfare should not be confused with the ‘animal rights movement’. This movement has evoked a highly emotional and defensive stance from within the livestock industry. This is unfortunate because it has adversely affected our attitude towards animal welfare when, in fact, public perception can positively influence what we do. Additionally, addressing these concerns promotes and maintains a positive image for the livestock industry.

However, controversy can arise because the non-agricultural community tend to have an idyllic view of the ‘appropriate’ way to raise livestock. For example, they envision a green pasture, rolling hills, and a blue sky with beef cattle grazing peacefully on the slopes as being ‘best’ for the animal. As producers, we understand that this picturesque scene can be misleading. We know that our current management systems provide livestock with shelter, proper nutrition, safety from predation and access to appropriate medical care. Political and legal decisions regarding the improvement of animal welfare are sometimes made by individuals unfamiliar with the industry. This means that the need for self-regulation is of paramount importance. The current codes of practice are an important step and have been written to ensure that we meet the basic physiological and behavioral needs of livestock.

We must encourage the promotion of animal welfare on our farms, in transport, at auction markets, and at slaughter. The consequences to the livestock industry are endless and therefore, we must continue to openly discuss welfare issues. One highly important factor is the effect of welfare concerns on the Canadian beef export market. Ignoring welfare concerns could result in trade barriers to other countries, particularly those in the EU (European Union) since there are significant differences in the perspectives on farm animal welfare between Europe and North America.

Welfare Concerns for the Feedlot Industry

Feedlots have been called the most animal-friendly of the confinement systems (in comparison to swine and poultry production) since they allow the animals significant room to move they also have the advantage of environmental control that animals would not have on range. However, there are some areas that need attention. A recent report on farm animal welfare concerns in Europe (4) indicated that transportation and hot-iron branding ranked the least acceptable practices in the beef sector. This report was based on the responses to a questionnaire delivered to the Chief Veterinary Officers of the UK and Switzerland, plus the Chief of Farm Animal Welfare for the European Commission (EC) and the senior management of 7 European animal welfare organizations.

Routine Management Procedures

It is well known that procedures such as castration and dehorning can reduce weight gain and immune function, elevate stress hormones, and change the behavior of cattle. These factors in combination with the increased concern for animal welfare within the beef industry have made the promotion of use of the ‘most humane’ methods and search for alternatives more important.

One of the major welfare criticisms for castration is the lack of use of anesthesia or analgesia. In Britain, castration is not permitted after eight weeks of age unless anesthesia is used. However, in North America, animals may be castrated as late as 8-9 months old when they reach the feedlot.

The most common castration techniques include surgical (knife), burdizzo and elastrator or rubber band methods. A summary of all research on castration methods indicates that there is both acute and chronic discomfort associated with each method. All studies reported higher blood plasma cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the castrated than intact animals (5, 6, 7, 8, 14). The greatest discomfort seems to be associated with surgical castration method. Burdizzo and rubber ring castration appear to cause comparable discomfort for calves (14).

The administration of local and general anesthetics reduce the stress response but do not appear to eliminate it. For example, a study conducted in 1992 by Faulkner and coworkers (6) indicated that the administration of butorphanol and xylazine did not reduce stress in knife castrated calves over controls. In addition, a study conducted by Fisher et al. (8) compared surgical and burdizzo methods done with and without local anesthetic. Surgical castration was found to be more stressful than burdizzo castration. Local anesthetic reduced the cortisol response of surgical castrates but was less effective for burdizzo castrates. One reason that the effectiveness of anesthesia is questioned is that handling and restraint required for the administration of the anesthetic can be just as distressing as the castration procedure itself (especially in calves 2 months and younger). Doing the procedure early does not mean that it is any less painful. However, it is better in terms of animals suffering less set back (performance), it is safer for the person doing the procedure and controlling bleeding is easier since there is less vascularization and less testicular development at that age. One issue that is not addressed is the issue of post operative pain, which is just as important as the administration of anesthetic at the time of the procedure.

It is recommended that castration be done early (before 8 weeks of age). Stress can be reduced by doing the procedure quickly and cleanly. Animals should be well restrained so that additional injury may be avoided at the time of the procedure. Use of the correct equipment that is clean and functioning properly is essential. Experienced workers who are familiar with the proper techniques can do a procedure more quickly with fewer problems due to hemorrhaging and infection later.

Dehorning is another procedure that is typically done (in North America) in the absence of anesthetic. This procedure was ranked fifth (out of 10) by the EU as a procedure they found unacceptable (4). There are several different techniques including caustic paste (placed on the horn button), burning the horn button, gouging, sawing or clipping. It is reasonable to assume that all of these techniques cause some discomfort to the animal since the interior of the horn is innervated. In general, the older the animals the more developed the horn and the more traumatic the operation. Studies have shown that the procedure is traumatic enough to reduce ADG (10,11).

The least invasive technique is the use of a caustic paste when calves are young (early as 1-2 weeks of age) and the horn bud or button is very small. Another method is the use of a burning tool (BuddexTM) applied to the horn bud when calves are less than 5 months old, however this technique is not painless. It is recommended that adult cattle should receive a local anaesthetic when gouging, sawing, or clipping procedures are done; however, the same problems as with castration exist here. The best solution to dehorning is the poll gene, which eliminates the need for dehorning. Some of this work has already been done but wide spread acceptance has been slow since polled animals are seen as being inferior (production wise) to their horned counter parts. However, recent studies have shown the contrary. For example, one study indicated that there was no disadvantage for polled bulls compared to horned bulls in terms of ADG, weight per day of age, scrotal circumference and yearling weight (22). Another study showed that there were no differences between polled and horned cattle for pregnancy, calving and weaning rates, calf birth and weaning weights, calf preweaning average daily gains, dystocia score, cow weights and condition scores at birth and calf weaning (10). In both studies the researchers indicated that from a welfare perspective, use of polled cattle for breeding is a welfare friendly alternative and circumvents the need for dehorning.

Hot-iron branding is a banned practice in Europe and according to the report on EU farm animal welfare concerns ranks as the least acceptable practice in the beef sector along with inhumane transportation (4). In Canada, many people feel the controversy surrounding the branding of cattle has become irrelevant because most large feedlots owners are not branding their stock any more. However, a substantial number of animals from smaller feedlots and ranches are still branded, usually because lending institutions require proof of ownership for financing. In fact, a recent national beef quality audit reported that 37 % of cattle were branded. Given that branding is the only accepted permanent method of identification, it is still appropriate to be concerned about its effects on animal welfare and productivity.

Freeze branding was developed in the late 1960’s and was advocated as the ‘painless’ alternative to hot-iron branding. Consequently, many people believed that freeze branding should be the method of choice, even though there was no evidence that it was, in fact, painless. A series of studies aimed at determining which method was more humane was completed in the early 90’s (15-19). The researchers used a variety of behavioral and physiological indicators to assess the discomfort associated with the two branding methods. Surprisingly, no differences were observed in the average daily gains or morbidity rates between branded and unbranded calves. This was true when branding was performed within 2 days after arrival at the feedlot, in combination with other routine processing such as vaccination and ear-tagging or when it was performed 20 days after arrival without the additional processing stress.

Two studies indicated there were differences in the pain associated with hot-iron and freeze branding when behavioral responses during branding were compared (15,19). Hot-iron animals moved their heads more and with a greater velocity, kicked, vocalized, flicked their tails and fell down in the chute substantially more than freeze and control animals. They also displayed a stronger escape reaction, which was detected by using strain gauges to measure the force exerted on the headgate and squeeze chute during branding. Freeze branded steers did more tail-flicking and exerted more force on the chute than control animals. These results suggest that freeze branding causes less discomfort than hot-iron branding.

It is reasonable to assume that short-term pain is experienced by branded animals. However, there was no evidence to suggest that branding causes enough stress to reduce productivity or performance in the feedlot, as is often the case with other routine management procedures such as castration and dehorning. In terms of recommending which branding method causes the least amount of stress it appears that freeze branding may be less painful than hot-iron branding at the time the irons are being applied. However, the differences between hot-iron and freeze branded animals were relatively small and may not be enough to recommend producers switch from hot-iron branding to freeze branding. Other aspects should be taken into consideration when recommending one method of branding over the other. For example, the extra time and cost required to produce a freeze brand, the availability of a suitable coolant and the inconsistency of the freeze mark produced, make it a less desirable method from a producer’s perspective. These factors, in combination with the fact that the two branding methods have similar effects, on the animals may actually promote the use of hot-iron branding because of its efficiency and effectiveness as a method of animal identification.

Use of the proper technique cannot be overemphasized. Many producers apply hot-irons for an excessive amount of time. A proper brand is placed on the hide for only between 3 to 5 seconds or until the hide is a light tan color. If brands are done correctly, both the pain at the time of application and subsequent pain due to tissue damage and infection will be minimized.

Finally, if the interest is in eliminating the stress of branding, identification methods other than hot-iron and freeze branding should be developed. The development of the national identification system may help to eliminate the need for branding. However, many of the electronic tags available still do not address the issue of permanency and a visual means of identification. Researchers from Colorado State University (Bruce Golden and Bernard Rollin) are currently perfecting a painless method of permanent identification. This method involves the use of a photographic image of the vein patterns in the retina of the eyes of cattle. These patterns are as unique as human fingerprints and are a permanent means of identification.

Environment and Handling

Pen condition
One important aspect of confinement housing is the provision of space that allows the animals to move freely and lie down comfortably without excessive effort, discomfort or injury. One of the major welfare concerns for the feedlot industry is pen condition. Obviously, housing several hundred animals in a restricted space means the accumulation of manure and urine and in dirt pens the heavy traffic, in combination with precipitation can combine to make pen conditions extremely muddy. Several studies have documented the effect of muddy pens on cattle productivity. One study indicated that mud reduced daily gains 25-37% and increased the feed required per lb. of gain 20-33 % (2).

Some of the possible theories explaining this reduced performance are:

  • Energy is needed for standing more often because the animal is uncomfortable lying in the mud.
  • Extra heat is lost from the animal because the mud laden hide has reduced insulation value and an increased evaporative heat loss.
  • The animal has reduced fed intake because it is reluctant to venture out in the mud to the feed bunks.
  • Energy is required for the animal to pull its hoofs out of the mud.
The research results consistently emphasized the economic benefits obtained from reducing winter energy losses. For example by providing a dry comfortable resting area and good feedlot drainage the cattle are able to spend more time lying down, resulting in reduced heat loss. This issue is particularly important for the prairie climates and top priorities should be given to a dry bedded mound in the feedlot, windbreak fencing and paved watering and feeding areas.

The three main factors that contribute to poor pen condition are insufficient bedding, poor drainage and overcrowding. One straw bale per head per week is sufficient to keep cattle dry and clean. Wood chips and saw dust can also be used as bedding material. It is recommended that pens have sufficient space to prevent the manure pack from covering the entire pen and that a minimum of 200-250 square feet per animal is required for the development of a clearly defined bedding mound. These figures were based on feedlots where the manure was not removed during the feeding period.

Drainage should be away from the feeding and watering areas and a slope of between 2-4% is required for drainage of surface moisture. Make sure there are solid nonslip surfaces, such as roughly finished concrete, around feeders and water sources so that animals are not standing in deep manure when feeding and drinking.

Handling is an important issue for the entire beef industry and encompasses everything from the cow-calf sector right through to harvest.. The EU farm animal welfare report ranked the use of whips, prods and canes 6/7 (out of ten) in terms of unacceptability (4). This ranking is higher than that given to castration and dehorning. Handling has major implications for both animal welfare and potential profitability. Poor handling can result in significant stress, pain, injury and loss of income from bruising, greater susceptibility to disease and an increase in the prevalence of dark cutters. The concept of reducing handling stress is well known. Several studies have looked at the effect that handling practices have on animals in terms of productivity (13, 25). One study found that cattle that became agitated during restraint or handling had lower weight gains and tougher meat (23, 24). Another study found that cattle that exited more slowly from a squeeze chute had higher weight gains than those that exited more quickly (3).

Handling procedures in themselves are known to be as stressful as some routine management procedures. For example, moving animals through a chute and restraining them had the same effect on blood plasma cortisol levels as dehorning (1). Other studies have shown that during rough handling the heart rate can stay elevated for over 30 min before it returned to normal (21).

The key to reducing handling stress and improving welfare is to always work animals slowly and gently. The use of whips and electric prods, running, yelling, or jumping to get animals to move is not recommended. Temple Grandin and Bud Williams have put significant effort into identifying practices (taking into account natural behavior) that improve animal handling techniques. Temple Grandin has published extensively on handling and facility design that promotes animal movement and reduces fear (12). Many of the recommendations that she has made have become common place and can be seen in most new cattle handling facilities on farms, ranches and in packing plants. Some features of her designs include the use of solid sided fences, gates or chutes to reduce disturbance and balking. She has advocated the use of curved chutes and circular crowd pens to promote the natural circling movement of cattle. More details on facility design and animal behavior as it relates to handling are discussed in the Facilities and Environment Section (see Cattle Handling).

One of the best things the individual livestock owners can do for the beef industry in terms of relieving animal welfare concerns regarding to handling is to act by example. Good animal handling skills or lack of them are highly visible by the public and generally indicate how an individual producer views animal well being in general.

  1. Boandl, K. E., J. E. Wohlt and R. V. Carsia. 1989. Effects of Handling, administration of a local anesthetic and electrical dehorning on plasma cortisol in Holstein calves. J. Dairy Sci. 72:2193-2197.
  2. BBond, T.E., W. N. Garett, R. L. Givens and S. R. Morrison. 1970. Comparative effects of mud wind and rain on beef cattle performance. International J. of Farm. Building Research. 5:3-9.
  3. Burrow, H. M. and R. D. Dillon. 1997. Relationship between temperament and growth in a feedlot and commercial carcass traits of Bos indicus crossbreds. Aust. J. Exp. Ag. 37:407-411.
  4. Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC). 1999. EU Farm Animal Welfare Concerns: Beef, Dairy, pork and Poultry Industries (Taylor, M. A.).
  5. Cohen, R. D. H., B. D. King, L. R. Thomas and E.D. Janzen. 1990. Efficacy and stress of chemical versus surgical castration of cattle. Can J. Anim. Sci. 70:1063-1072.
  6. Faulkner, D. B., T. Eurell, W. J. Tranquilli, R.S. Ott, M.W. Ohl, G.F. Cmarik, and G. Zinn. 1992. Performance and health of weanling bulls after butorphanol and xylazine administration of castration. J. Anim. Sci. 70:2070-2974.
  7. Fell, L. R., R Wells and D. A. Shutt. 1986. Stress in calves castrated surgically or by the application of rubber rings. Aust. Vet. J. 63:16-18.
  8. Fisher, A. D., M. A. Crowe, M. E. Alonso de la Varga and W. J. Enright. 1996. Effect of castration method and the provision of local anesthesia on plasma cortisol, scrotal circumference, growth and feed intake of bull calves. J. Anim. Sci. 74:2336.
  9. Hand, R. K. and L. A. Goonewardene. 1989. Effects of dehorning and or castrating feedlot cattle. Proc. Am. Soc. Anim. Sci. West. Sect. 40:89-90
  10. Goonewardene, L. A., H. Pang, R. T. Berg and M. A Price. 1999. A comparison of reproductive growth traits of horned and polled cattle in three synthetic beef lines. Can. J. anim. Sci.79:123-127.
  11. Goonewardene, L. A. and R. K. Hand. 1991. Studies on dehorning steers in Alberta feedlots. 1991. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 71:1249-1252.
  12. Grandin, T. Livestock Handling and Transport. 1993. University Press, Cambridge.
  13. Mitchell, G.H., J. Hattingh and M. Ganhao. 1988. Stress in cattle assessed after handling, after transport and after slaughter. Vet Rec. 123:201-205.
  14. Molony, V., J. E. Kent, I.S. Robertson. 1995. Assessment of acute and chronic pain after different methods of castration of calves. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 46:33-48.
  15. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., J. M. Stookey, T. Crowe and B. M. A. Genswein. 1998. Comparison of Image Analysis, Exertion Force and Behaviour Measurements For Use In The Assessment of Beef Cattle Responses to Hot-iron and Freeze Branding. Journal of Animal Science 76:972-979.
  16. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S. and J. M. Stookey. 1997a. The use of infrared thermography to assess burn severity associated with hot-iron and freeze branding in cattle. Canadian Journal of Animal Science. 77(4):577-583.
  17. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., J. M. Stookey, J. J. Mckinnon and E. D. Janzen. 1997b. Effects of branding on weight gain, rectal temperature and subsequent handling-ease in feedlot cattle. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 77:361-367.
  18. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., J. M. Stookey, A. M. de Passillé, and J. Rushen. 1997c. Effect of hot-iron and freeze branding on cortisol levels and pain sensitivity in beef cattle. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 77:369-374.
  19. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., J. M. Stookey and R Welford. 1997d. Behaviour of cattle during hot-iron and freeze branding and the effects on subsequent handling ease in feedlot cattle. Journal of Animal Science 75:2064-2072.
  20. Schwartzkopf, K. S., J. M. Stookey, P. R. Hull, and E. G. Clark. 1994. Screening of depigmenting compounds for the development of an alternate method of branding for beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science 72:1393-1398.
  21. Stermer,R. T.H. Camp and D. G. Stevens.1981. Feeder cattle stress during transportation. Paper no. 81-6001, American Society of Agricultural Engineers, St. Joseph Michigan.
  22. Stookey, J. M. and L.A. Goonewardene. 1996. A comparison of production traits and welfare implications between horned and polled beef bulls. Can J. Anim. Sci. 76:1.
  23. Voisinet, B.D., T Grandin, D. J. Tatum, S. F. O’Connor and J.J. Struthers. 1997a. Feedlot cattle with calm temperaments have higher average daily gains than cattle with excitable temperament. J. Anim. Sci. 75:892-896.
  24. Voisinet, B.D., T Grandin, S. F. O’Connor, D. J. Tatum and M. J. Deesing. 1997b. Bos-indicus-cross feedlot cattle with excitable temperaments have tougher meat and a higher incidence of borderline dark cutters. Meat Sci. 46(4):367-377.
  25. Zavey, M. T., P. E. Juniewicz, W. A. Phillips and D. L Von Tungeln. 1992. Effects of initial restraint, weaning and transport stress on baseline and ACTH stimulated cortisol responses in beef cattle of different genotypes. Am J. Vet. Res. 53:551.
Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, 2000. Alberta Feedlot Management Guide.
For more information about the content of this document, contact Linda Hunt.
This information published to the web on October 25, 2007.
Last Reviewed/Revised on November 18, 2014.