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Beef cattle

We have some serious concerns about beef cattle welfare. Take a look at their natural behaviours, how they’re farmed, key welfare issues and what we’re doing to address these, and how you can get involved.  

Cattle behaviour makes it hard to spot welfare issues

Because they're prey animals, cattle usually keep a safe distance between themselves and anything they think could be a threat. They don't show easily recognisable signs of suffering. For example, sick or injured cattle may not vocalise loudly because in the wild this could attract the attention of a predator. This lack of expression means that people sometimes don't notice subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate cattle are in pain or distress.

Farming beef cattle

Many people assume all beef cattle are kept outside in fields, but that isn't always the case. Some cattle are housed indoors throughout their lives and others during the winter months.

There are 1.4 million beef breeding cows in the UK, with a number of different pure and crossbred beef breeds being reared. These 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. It’s estimated that in the UK over 2.7 million cattle were slaughtered for meat between October 2022 and November 2023.

How are beef cattle kept?

Beef cattle are usually kept in one of these two housing systems.

  • 'Extensive' grazing-based system – the beef cattle are mainly kept in fields but may be housed for part of the year.
  • 'Intensive' indoor system – in some cases, the beef cattle are housed indoors their whole lives.

How is beef produced?

There are two main methods of beef production.

  • Suckled calf production – calves are reared by their mothers until they're weaned at around six to eight months, and then fattened ready for slaughter, either on the farm where they were born or elsewhere.
  • Dairy-beef finishing systems – calves are bought in from the dairy herd and reared to finishing. They may be kept on the farm that buys them, or sold or moved to different farms for finishing. Sometimes, these animals are kept indoors throughout their lives.

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

Other beef 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. At one point dairy calves weren’t considered good enough quality to be reared for beef. Many were being killed on-farm or transported to Europe for further fattening as veal, often in systems that wouldn't be legal in the UK. 

  • Veal production – calves are reared until they're 8 to 12 months old and then slaughtered.
  • Finishing – this is when most beef animals are brought in and fed high energy diets to get them ready for slaughter. Such systems can have welfare issues if the diet and housing isn't appropriate.
  • 'Store' cattle – young, weaned cattle are grown and 'finished' more slowly, often at grass.

Beef cattle welfare

Here are some of our main concerns about the welfare of beef cattle in the UK.

Beef cattle housing

Good management and well-maintained housing is important for avoiding welfare problems with beef cattle. Some people assume that all beef cattle are kept outside in fields. However, many cattle need to be housed during winter, when the weather is bad and the grass isn't growing. Some may be reared entirely indoors. 

We have particular concerns about:

  • lack of space and ventilation, which can lead to lung problems, especially in young cattle
  • poor lighting
  • fully-slatted flooring, which can be uncomfortable for cattle
  • a lack of enrichment, such as brushes that allow cattle to perform scratching behaviour.

Beef cattle diet

It's very important to ensure that all beef cattle, whether they're kept indoors or outdoors, have access to enough feed (especially fibre) and clean water. We're concerned that some beef cattle may not be getting an adequate diet. For example, intensively reared bulls may not get enough fibre, leading to diseases such as ruminal acidosis, which can cause significant discomfort to the cattle.

Selective breeding for beef

Some continental beef cattle breeds have been bred to be more muscular in order to increase the amount of meat they produce. A combination of calves growing very large during pregnancy and the mothers having narrow pelvic canals can result in problems giving birth. Repeated caesareans may be needed to allow them to calve. We're concerned for the welfare of breeds that can't give birth without regular assistance.

Beef cattle management

When it comes to managing beef cattle herds, we're concerned about the following issues.

  • Lack of regular health checks – in some cases, animals kept outside during winter may not be inspected regularly enough and sick animals may not be spotted immediately.
  • Pain relief – this isn't always used for procedures likely to cause pain, such as dehorning mature animals, or painful conditions like lameness. We believe that pain relief is very important during all potentially painful procedures or conditions, and for a period afterwards.
  • Lack of separate pens for sick animals on some farms and poor/lack of handling facilities. 
  • Electric goads – these are sometimes used to help move cattle, which we believe suggests there's something wrong with the handling facilities, whether they're on the farm or in the abattoir.

Improving the life of beef cattle 

We're working hard to help give beef cattle a better quality of life. Here are some of the things we're doing.

Developing welfare standards for beef cattle

We encourage as many beef cattle farmers as possible to adopt our welfare standards, which we've developed for the main species of farm animals. These are detailed welfare standards based on scientific evidence and practical farming experience. They are regularly updated to reflect the latest research and knowledge and are used by the RSPCA Assured scheme, and many other organisations, as a reference.

The RSPCA welfare standards cover every aspect of the animals' lives, including feed and water, environment, management, health care, transport and humane slaughter/killing. They're designed to ensure that all animals managed following the standards have their welfare needs met and a good life.

Sitting on government and industry cattle committees

We take every opportunity to put forward our views to encourage better cattle welfare. Our scientific staff represent our views on government and industry committees, such as the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group for England, an industry-wide group tasked with improving the health and welfare of beef and dairy cattle in England.

Working to improve the welfare of veal calves

We want to ensure that veal calves are reared under humane conditions and not transported live from the UK to systems that are not legal here. Since 2006, we have been working to encourage the use of these animals to supply the home beef market. In 2023, after years of our campaigning on this issue, a ban on live exports of calves for further fattening was tabled to become part of UK legislation.

How you can improve beef cattle welfare

You can do your bit to help ensure beef cattle have a good quality of life. If more consumers insist on higher welfare products, more supermarkets will want to stock them, which will encourage more farmers to improve their farming practices. Ultimately, more farm animals will benefit.

Look out for the RSPCA Assured logo

If you eat beef and are concerned about welfare, look out for products carrying the RSPCA Assured logo. If you can't find RSPCA Assured labelled beef, you can ask the supermarket to stock it using this tool.

The RSPCA Assured food labelling scheme aims to ensure animals are reared, handled, transported and slaughtered according to strict RSPCA welfare standards that we develop and monitor. Find out more about where to buy RSPCA Assured labelled food.

Find out more