The RSPCA has flagged its intention to play a more active role in raising animal welfare standards throughout the Australian beef industry with the forthcoming launch of new RSPCA guidelines for beef cattle production.
RSPCA chief executive officer Heather Neil told yesterday’s Australian Lot Feeders Association BeefEx conference on the Gold Coast that the feedlot sector was clearly taking a “progressive, forward thinking and proactive approach” to improving animal welfare.
She said it was becoming increasingly important for the broader livestock industry to be able to measure, monitor and report its animal welfare progress to the wider community.
A core message from recent public surveys was that consumers were now taking more interest in how their food was produced than they were five years ago. Studies were also showing that customers will not only pay more for food that is demonstrated to have been produced to higher welfare standards, but were also tending to shun those foods perceived to have been produced to lower welfare standards.
Ms Neil told the conference that the RSPCA is planning to launch a new initiative called the “Beef Cattle Welfare Challenge” in coming weeks.
“The Australian Lot Feeders Association and your members are ahead of most industries when it comes to pushing standards higher, as shown by the level of participation in the (ALFA) awards, but really don’t stop there,” she said.
“As an industry and as individual companies, we want to encourage you to measure and monitor and report your progress, and not just to each other.
“You know what the key issues are or are likely to be, and there is information in the public domain that allows people who are interested and certainly groups like the RSPCA to be able to commend you when we think you are doing a really great job, ask questions when we want to know more or make comments if we think you have got a bit more of way to go.
“To provide some assistance in setting benchmarks and rewarding progress, the RSPCA will shortly be releasing our own beef cattle guidelines.
“Unashamedly these guidelines set a very high standard and really describe how we might like to see cattle production in Australia.
“And in order to encourage and reward cattle producers to measure their current performance, establish targets for improvements and then report those improvements we will be inviting cattle producers to join the RSPCA beef cattle welfare challenge and so more information will be coming out about that soon.”
The RPSCA currently operates an “Approved Farming Scheme” which covers the production of eggs, pork, chicken and turkey. To be eligible to carry an RPSCA Approved label, producers must comply with high levels of welfare standards set by the RSPCA. In most cases the standards exceed legal requirements.
Approved farms are assessed twice every year and pay a royalty for the right to display the “RSPCA Approved” logo on their products.
The RSPCA says the royalty payments are used to pay for regular farm assessments, to fund further development of certification standards, to promote the scheme to consumers, retailers and producers, and to fund campaigns aimed at improving the welfare of farm animals.
The RSPCA also states on its website that it is currently looking into the feasibility of introducing higher welfare standards for beef production. It adds that it is considering whether to include cattle and sheep in its existing Approved Farming Scheme, which is focused primarily on intensive-livestock production systems, or whether to develop another system for extensive animal production.
RSPCA’s impressions from feedlot visit
Heather Neil was invited to visit NAPCO’s Wainui Feedlot at Dalby earlier this week before addressing yesterday’s ALFA conference on the Gold Coast.
She said she was amazed at how quiet the environment was, and was surprised to detect no smell. She also praised the skill of stockmen she witnessed who were using the natural behaviours of cattle to move their animals quietly and calmly, and was complimentary about the curved raceways with solid sides and low slip floors, which followed Professor Temple Grandin’s theories on efficient, low stress animal handling.
She said the key welfare issues for the broader cattle industry included the invasive husbandry procedures that are currently performed on young animals without pain relief, including dehorning, castration and hot iron branding.
These were not only painful but were also very visually confronting, and were therefore much more likely to attract the attention of the public in the future, she warned.
As awareness of the pain perceptions of animals grew, she noted that more research was being conducted into strategies designed to minimise pain or to do away with such procedures altogether.
The work of the Beef CRC to identify the poll gene and reduce the need for dehorning was a “really commendable project”, but she also questioned how many operations were actively looking to adopt the innovation in practice.
Ms Neil said that while animals in feedlots had access to plenty of high quality food and water, in reality the high grain ration was very different to what ruminants would eat in a natural environment. This was also becoming more of an issue in the RSCPA’s view as cattle were being held in feedlots for an increasingly long period of time with the increase in the number of days on feed required for domestic cattle to meet MSA labelling requirements and to be called grainfed.
Feedlot specific issues
From the RSCPA’s perspective, the big potential issues for feedlots in particular were related to stocking densities, a barren environment, shelter, and the ability of animals to express choice in where to move.
Ms Neil recognised that many feedlots now provided shade and were careful with stocking density and management of heat stress.
“We commend the industry on the development of the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and would clearly like to see every single feedlot in Australia be part of that scheme,” she said.
“But there is a really a conundrum for the industry I think.
“On the one hand consumers want high quality, consistent and affordable beef, and you play a very important part in providing that, but there is a growing group of consumers who want to have that and know that the animal has been able to do things that cattle like to do…
“What we do know is that it is the freedom to be able to exhibit natural behaviour that the feedlot is perceived to restrict the most.”
She recommended that the industry’s ongoing research and development efforts should focus on looking at ways to provide stimulation and to relieve boredom for cattle in feedlots, and to provide opportunities and reasons for cattle to move.
The industry would benefit from being able to report to the wider public how many facilities used low stress stock handling, and how past lessons past were being used to redesign modern, welfare friendly feedlot systems today.
“You’re really good at telling each other, it is really time you started telling people outside your industry,” she told the BeefEx audience.
She said non-government-organisations such as RSPCA knew they could achieve change much faster by talking directly to the community, rather than relying solely on working behind the scenes with Governments and relying upon slow moving legislative processes.
She urged the feedlot sector to take the same approach.
“Continuing to invite people to see what you do, working with NGOs, investing in research, setting targets, measuring performance and reporting, and being transparent through reporting, are all part of the future landscape,” she said.
“As an industry you really appear to have a very open attitude, a commitment to research and to the transfer of that research into your practices, and a commitment to continuous improvement well beyond farm.
“And I know at the end of the day your individual feedlots and your industry will be judged by what you do, and I only wish that all livestock industries were as progressive and forward thinking and proactive as you are.
“It was a great delight to visit Wainui and I’m sure that all of you that are operating at least that same level have got a lot to be proud of, and you just need to start telling people about it.”