Cows: The Cow Behind the Beef

Cows, commonly referred to as "beef cattle", are bred and raised for human consumption. Using titles that diminish their agency and inherent right to life strips away the cows curious, kind nature, whilst aiding peoples capacity to think of them as things, rather than living beings. As ruminant animals, cows eat grass and soften it by ‘chewing the cud’. This aids the natural digestion system. However, humans’ ever-growing demand for fatty, marbled beef has led to the creation of a feedlot sector, where cows are fattened on artificial grain diets before being slaughtered.

The use of feedlots in Australia has become a $2.7 billion per year industry, with the industry’s peak body claiming that 80% of beef sold in supermarkets comes from the feedlot industry. Most cows are raised in pastures and are sent to a feedlot for the last few months of their lives in order to grow to a ‘marketable weight’.

The majority of beef eaten in Australia comes from animals who have been subjected to artificial diets, fed growth hormones and are forced to live in barren, faeces-ridden environments with little protection from the elements.

Artificial Diet

In natural conditions and environments, cows spend up to 12 hours per day grazing on a variety of grasses. In a feedlot, they are fed a high-fat, high-energy diet of wheat and barley. This is done in order to fatten them for slaughter as quickly and profitably as possible. They are also fed growth hormones, which, according to the peak body, leads ‘cattle [to] meet market weight at an earlier age’. After the mass outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) – also known as ‘Mad Cow Disease’ – feeding cows meat, blood and bone from other animals or fish was banned. Prior to the ban in 2001, it was common practice in feedlots.


The Feedlot Environment

Feedlots are fenced in, outdoor areas which cows are crammed into to ensure that they cannot exercise and thereby obstruct the fattening process. There are often no trees for the cows to seek shade beneath and no grass for the cows to eat. The lots are covered in manure, which turns to muddy sludge when it rains. During drought, the lots are dry and dusty. There is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide shelter to cows in feedlots.


Injury and Illness

A wide range of injury and illness are found on feedlots. These diseases are primarily caused by stress, dehydration, transportation, inadequate food, and the feedlot environment. They include tick fever, footrot, enterotoxaemia (pulp kidney), bovine respiratory disease, blight (pink eye), feedlot bloat, acidosis, liver abscesses and botulism (a bacterial disease that causes paralysis).


Surgery Without Pain Relief

A shocking number of surgical procedures are performed on cattle. These are routinely enacted without anaesthesia or pain relief. These procedures often happen when the cows are still calves, before they arrive at the feedlot, but remain a cruel and ever-present part of life for cows bred for food. These procedures include branding with hot irons and castration. The painful removal the horns (often referred to as “dis-” or “debudding”) can be done in several ways. Dehorning involves the use of large scoop-like clippers that are dug into the cow’s head to remove the horn and root. This procedure can leave the skull fractured. Dis- or debuting refers to a procedure wherein the horn is removed at an early age to prevent the bud from attaching to the skull. This is then cauterised with a hot iron. Furthermore, the cutting of the horns of older cows is practiced when they become unacceptably thick. As the saw or guillotine cuts through the nerves, these are then similarly cauterised with a hot iron. Producers are free to perform these cruel procedures without pain relief as they are deemed commercially necessary under animal protection legislation.


Early Death

Left to their own devices, a cow will live happily chewing cud for up to 25 years. However, cows raised for food have their lives drastically cut short. A cow is generally sent to fatten on a feedlot for the last three to four months of their life. Ultimately, they are routinely sent to slaughter before they reach the age of two.