The life of beef cattle

Roast beef, steak, and veal schnitzel: The cruelty behind farming of cattle fattened for meat


Cattle have strong personalities and strong emotions. The animals live in herds, where clear hierarchies apply. Under natural conditions, they spend most of their time grazing, covering several kilometres a day. The natural life expectancy of cattle is 20 years, however, in commercial cattle farming, they reach their slaughter age on average at 12-18 months1.

How do beef cattle suffer for meat production

There are approximately 1.5 billion head of cattle globally2 where the major beef producing countries are the United States (17% of beef production), Europe (15%), Brazil (13%), China (9%), Argentina (4%), India (4%), and Australia (4%). 

Beef cattle are raised in either extensive or intensive systems. While in South America and Australia, beef cattle are raised in extensive pasture-based systems where cattle can roam outdoors, increasingly 'grain fed' cattle through feedlot finishing is growing, similar to North American production systems which include a higher proportion of cattle that are feedlot finished in confined spaces for slaughter.

How does Australian beef cattle rearing compare to other countries?

There are almost 28 million beef cattle in Australia, making Australia the world's seventh largest beef-producing country. While in Australia, beef cattle are raised in extensive pasture-based systems where cattle can roam outdoors, increasingly a significant number of 'grain fed' cattle through feedlot finishing is growing.

After being raised in pasture, beef cattle is then confined to indoor feedlot pens of 50-200 cattle each to be fattened on a high-energy grain-based diet to meet a specific weight before slaughter. This is often to fatten beef cattle in shorter periods or to produce highly marbled, higher value beef (e.g. Wagyu) for export to Japan and Korea.

In Australia, beef products labelled ‘grain fed’ are from cattle who have spent an average of 50 to 120 days in a feedlot and the label ‘grain fed finished’ indicates a minimum 35 days in a feedlot before the animal is slaughtered.

The issue with indoor systems and feedlots

For beef cattle exclusively raised in indoor systems, these animals never see the pasture, but rather stand crowded in the stables. A bull that weighs about 700 kilograms at the end of its fattening period generally has only two to three square meters of space.

Beef cattle are kept in many production systems on fully slatted floors without bedding and without a separate lying area. Inflammation of the joints and hoofs, calluses, and lameness are the most common visible diseases of inappropriate animal husbandry. 

Lack of enrichment and lack of exercise, as well as a diet which is not ruminant-appropriate, can lead to several behavioural and physiological disorders. Licking metal bars and rolling tongues, which are unnatural behaviours, is just one of the consequences. 

Many fattening bulls are also tied with a chain throughout their lives. Tethering cattle largely prevents behaviour typical of the species, however it is still permitted. While tethering to all other animal species has long been banned, tethering cattle is justified by the fact that many small and medium-sized businesses cannot afford to switch to a playpen and would have to give up if ban tethering were prohibited. 

A compromise is therefore often seen when the animals come into a run or pasture during the day and stand tied up in the barn at night, but this means that behaviours such as movement, social behaviour, comfort behaviour, rest behaviour are severely restricted, and the animals have no options for a needs-oriented day organisation, preferred social partners and are unconditionally exposed to their housing environment. All of this has a lot of negative effects on their wellbeing status.

Animal-friendly cattle fattening

In intensive cattle fattening, beef cattle generally never see the pasture. But there is another way: The most animal-friendly one is the keeping of fattening cattle in a herd in multi-area bays, combined with daily free access and seasonal grazing for at least 90 days a year. Some farmers even keep their beef cattle outdoors almost all year round.

FOUR PAWS calls for...

… the end of cruel practices: they are inducing fear, pain and distress, thus diminishing the immune system, altering brain function and the natural behaviour of animals

  • Ban on the painful mutilation procedures
  • Highly intensive concentrate feeding must be avoided
  • Fully slatted flooring should not be allowed
  • Ban on breeding for extreme performance - the well-being of the animal must be prioritised
  • Fulfilment of basic needs


FOUR PAWS promotes the 3R Principle when it comes to our own diet: 

  • Reducing the consumption of meat and other foods of animal-origin.
  • Refining the diet by choosing products from higher welfare production system.
  • Replacing meat, products and eggs in the diet with plant-based alternatives.

What to do as a witness of farm animal suffering

Cattle during transport


Learn more


2. FAOSTAT, 2020. Food and agriculture data.

Share now!