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Farming beef cattle

Group feeding in a meadow © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Beef cattle are usually kept in either:

  • ‘extensive’ grazing-based systems where they are mainly kept in fields and may be housed for part of the year.
     
  •  ‘intensive’ indoor systems where, in some cases, they may be housed throughout their lives.


There are three main methods of beef production.


Beef production methods:

Suckled calf production

Where calves are reared by their mothers until they are weaned at around six to eight months of age and then fattened ready for slaughter elsewhere.


Finishing systems

Where animals are fed a diet to get them ready for slaughter.


Store production

Where young animals are grown quite slowly using relatively inexpensive home-grown crops. 


End of rearing

Young bulls, steers (castrated bulls) and heifers (young females) can all be used in beef production and are slaughtered at different ages and weights depending on what the buyers want.


Veal production

Traditionally, the beef and dairy industries have been linked, with unwanted calves from the dairy industry bought by beef farmers to be reared for beef. However over the years this situation has changed, mainly because dairy calves have not been considered to be of good enough quality to be reared for beef.


This has resulted in many of them being killed on-farm or transported to the continent for further fattening as veal, often in systems that would not be legal in the UK. Since 2006, the RSPCA, along with a number of other organisations have been working to encourage the use of these animals to supply the home beef market.


Number of beef cattle

The number of beef breeding cows in the UK was around 1.6 million in 2013¹.

¹Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (2014) EBLEX UK Yearbook 2014: Cattle. Warwickshire: EBLEX


Breeds

The pure beef breeds of cattle that are used include early-maturing British breeds such as the Aberdeen Angus and the Hereford, and later-maturing continental breeds such as the Limousin and the Charolais.


Find out about some of the key welfare issues for beef cattle.