Beef cattle

24.05.17

Overview

Australia is considered one of the world’s most efficient producers of beef cattle and is the world’s third largest exporter of beef. Beef is the third most widely consumed meat in the world, after pork and poultry. The United States, Brazil, and China are the world’s largest consumers of beef and India, Brazil, Australia and the United States are the world’s largest exporters of beef.

Beef cattle production is a well-established and major industry in Australia and beef cattle are produced in all states and territories. Australia produces both grass and grain-fed beef. In 2012-13, the Australian national beef cattle herd was 28.5 million head and accounted for 57 per cent of agricultural farms in Australia. In this same financial year, Australian cattle and calf production was valued at AU$7.4 billion.

There is a range of detailed information available on producing beef cattle in Australia and the information provided on this website aims to address broad information on production, care and management, and marketing, and then to provide links out to key organisations and sources for more detailed information.

The research & development (R&D) and marketing body for the beef industry in Australia is Meat & Livestock Australia.

Facts and figures

  • As at June 30, 2012, Australia’s national cattle herd stood at 28.5 million head, of which 13.6 million were beef cows and heifers. These cattle were run on 77,164 cattle properties across Australia
  • Australia produced around 2.2 million tonnes of beef and veal in 2012-13 of which 67% was exported to more than 100 countries at a value of over AU$5 billion
  • Australia is the world’s seventh largest beef producer, producing 4% of the world’s beef supply and is the third largest beef exporter
  • Australia’s largest beef export market is Japan, followed by the US and South Korea

Production Status

Beef cattle are produced in all states and territories of Australia. Queensland is the major producer of beef cattle with the Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting 2012 figures as: 12.2 million head of cattle in Queensland; 5.8 million in New South Wales; 4.1 million in Victoria; 2.2 million in Northern Territory; 2.1 million in Western Australia; 1.3 million in South Australia; and 700,000 in Tasmania.

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Beef cattle are production animals that are specially bred to provide food for humans. The two main products from beef cattle are beef and veal. Veal is meat from beef calves that weigh up to 150 kilograms at the time of slaughter.

The meat from beef cattle is a major product in Australia with average consumption estimated at 32.5 kilograms per person in 2012-13.

Beef and veal are prepared in a variety of ways from barbeques to soups, stews and roasts.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Beef cattle are grown in every Australian state and territory. Different breeds of cattle are suited to different environmental conditions and climate is the main factor in breed selection.

Northern beef production utilises tropical breeds, southern beef production utilises temperate breeds, while areas of south eastern Queensland and north eastern New South Wales utilise both temperate and tropical breeds. Meat and Livestock Australia provides a map showing the regions where cattle are produced in Australia.

Climate

Beef cattle can be grown and produced in both dry sub tropical and temperate regions of Australia, -as well as arid central Australia. They are not produced in the desert areas such as the Great Sandy Desert, the Gibson Desert, the Tanami Desert and Simpson’s Desert. Different breeds are suited to different environments.

Housing

Under Australian conditions, beef cattle are almost never housed. However, in summer months, access to shade is very important, especially in hotter regions. Equally, in colder regions, access to shelter (e.g. tree wind breaks) is important in winter months.

Feed requirements

Beef cattle in Australia are primarily grass fed for the majority of their life and so managing feed requirements is about the efficient production of pasture, and then the conversion of that pasture into meat. About one third of Australian cattle are eventually ‘finished’ in feedlots where they are fed a largely grain-based diet from 70 up to 360 days until they meet the specifications for a particular market.

As a simple guide, a cow needs between 2.0 per cent and 3.0 per cent of its liveweight as dry matter (DM) intake per day, but this varies depending on a range of factors such as liveweight and whether growing or maintaining weight, energy concentration of the feed, whether pregnant or lactating and weather conditions. Information on methods to increase stocking rates and how to adopt a plant growth-based approach to grazing management can be found in Meat and Livestock Australia’s More Beef from Pastures (MBfP) module on pasture utilisation.  In the dry season when pasture quality declines, dry matter intake can be increased by providing additional protein or urea based supplements.

Water is also critical and again daily water requirements depend on a variety of factors, especially moisture content of pastures, size of the beast, environmental conditions and status (e.g. lactating). The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries suggests the following indicative requirements (litres/day):

Lactating cows

– grassland

– saltbush

 40–100

70–140

Young stock 25–50
Dry stock (400 kg) 35–80

For further detailed information on feed requirements and pasture management for beef cattle refer to Meat & Livestock Australia’s Grazing and Pasture ManagementFeeding, Finishing and NutritionAnimal Health Welfare and Biosecurity; and state departments of agriculture websites such as Victoria and New South Wales.

Breeds and breeding

In Australia there are more than 30 different breeds of cattle suitable for beef production and breed selection depends largely on the climate of the region in which the cattle will be grown.

In the tropical regions of Northern Australia the Bos indicus breeds are used as they are resistant to cattle ticks and are better adapted to the high temperatures. Brahman cattle, one of the most common of the Bos indicus, have short, light coloured coats to reflect the sun and black skin that protects them from sunburn. They have loose skin and extra sweat glands to keep cool. The tropical breeds first came from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean region of southern Europe.

In Southern Australia the Bos taurus breeds are used in the temperate climate as they mature quickly and have a rapid growth rate. The Angus and Hereford are two of the most common of the temperate breeds produced in Australia. The temperate breeds originally came from the cool climate areas of Europe, in particular Britain.

There are also some breeds that are bred to produce a special type of meat for a particular market, such as Wagyu beef which is highly regarded in the Japanese market and, increasingly, domestically.

Some of the main Bos indicus breeds are:

  • Belmont Red – developed in Queensland, Australia in 1968.
  • Brahman – originate from the USA they calve easily, milk well and are very protective of their young.
  • Brangus – developed from Brahman and Angus. They have reasonable heat and tick tolerance, are medium sized, average to late maturity and yield a carcase without excess fat.
  • Braford – a Hereford and Brahman cross that are heat resistant, relatively tick tolerant and slightly later maturing than the British breeds. Produce good yearling and steer carcasees.
  • Charbray – A Charolais and Brahman cross animal that produces a high muscled lean carcase.
  • Droughtmaster – developed in Queensland and are a combination of Brahman, Shorthorn, with some mixture of Red Poll and Hereford.
  • Santa Gertrudis – originate from the USA, have a maternal/rotational/terminal place in cross breeding.

Some of the main Bos taurus breeds are:

  • Angus – suited to vealer, steer and bullock production or maternal/rotational place in cross breeding.
  • Hereford – suited to vealer, steer and bullock production or maternal/rotation place in cross breeding.
  • Murray Grey – suited to vealer, steer and bullock production or maternal/rotational place in cross breeding.
  • Shorthorn – suited to vealer, steer and bullock production or maternal/rotational place in crossbreeding.
  • Charolais – suited to bullock production or as a terminal sire in cross breeding programs.
  • Limousin – smaller and earlier maturing than other European breeds but later maturing than British breeds, so suitable for cross breeding programs.
  • Simmental – suited to vealer, steer and bullock production maternal/rotational/terminal place in cross breeding.

For further detailed information on breeds for beef production refer to breed societies and state department resources such as the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Prime facts note Cattle Breed Types.

Beef production on-farm can be undertaken in many ways, the primary two being:

  • By breeding and then on-selling the progeny to either other farmers or feedlots for further fattening (called finishing), or if the cattle are suitable sell to an abattoir
  • By buying in cattle and then finishing them prior to selling to an abattoir

 

Where commercial breeding is undertaken, cows are impregnated predominantly by natural service. Artificial insemination when utilised in beef enterprises is used mainly in bull breeding enterprises. For beef production selecting the right bulls and cows for your enterprise is critically important.

For more information on the role of genetics in a beef breeding enterprise refer to Meat & Livestock Australia’s Genetics and breeding; and the More Beef from Pastures Cattle genetics module. A key factor in developing a breeding program is to define a breeding objective that describes the ‘ideal’ animal you want to breed and can meet the market requirements which are reflected in market specifications.

Sourcing stock

Cattle can be purchased through saleyards or directly from a producer. Once established, stock numbers can be built or maintained through breeding on-farm (see Breeds and breeding section).

There are a number of factors to consider when purchasing cattle, including:

  • All properties that run livestock must be registered with the state Department of Primary Industry and have a Property Identification Code (PIC). This is needed to buy and sell livestock and before ordering National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) devices.
  • All cattle must carry NLIS devices
  • You should obtain a copy of the vendor declaration for your purchases
  • Any stock movements on or off the property must be recorded on the NLIS database by the person responsible for the cattle. In the case of sales it is usually the purchaser.

For more information on visit your State Department of Primary Industry / Agriculture:

Health care & pests and diseases

Animal health, welfare and biosecurity are important at all stages of the livestock production chain. Each can have potentially adverse impacts on productivity if managed poorly.

Biosecurity programs for the cattle industry are designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease and contain disease outbreaks when they occur. Biosecurity is important at the national, regional and property level.

State and territory governments are responsible for animal welfare laws and their enforcement. The states and territories have developed animal welfare standards for cattle and these are enforced through animal welfare or prevention of cruelty to animals’ legislation. The Model Codes of practice served as voluntary guides for people responsible for the welfare and husbandry of a range of livestock animals. These Codes have now been converted into Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines.

Parasites and disease impact on all livestock production systems, including beef cattle. Livestock affected by disease may not always show obvious clinical signs but there may still be negative impacts on growth rates, reproduction rates, carcase quality and milk production.

Some of the key cattle parasites include stomach worms, lice and ticks while diseases include grass tetany, pink eye, pregnancy toxaemia and vibriosis. Further detailed information on the various cattle diseases and parasites and their treatment and control is readily available on sites such as the New South Wales Department of Primary IndustryModule 6 in the MBfP program also has a detailed description and a variety of tools in relation to common cattle diseases and parasites, disease management plans, biosecurity plans to prevent the introduction of infectious diseases and descriptions of all factors affecting the welfare of a cattle herd.

There are a number of animal diseases, including all emergency animal diseases that are notifiable under state government legislation, such as this example in Victoria. If a producer suspects or can confirm that an animal is showing symptoms of a notifiable disease they are legally responsible for  reporting it to a local vet or by contacting the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline.

When it is necessary to use veterinary products, such as antibiotics, vaccines or other chemicals to prevent or treat diseases in livestock, producers should follow important procedures to protect the animal, themselves and the market. Withholding periods need to be observed and treatments need to be recorded on the National Vendor Declaration form where applicable.

When environmental conditions are poor and/or unforeseen circumstances such as drought, flooding and fire lead to declined animal health, special attention needs to be given to welfare and biosecurity, especially if circumstances necessitate the humane destruction of large numbers of animals. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides guidelines for the humane destruction of stock.  A Meat & Livestock Australia publication, A national guide to describing and managing beef cattle in low body condition, provides guidance to assist with decision making in times of crisis.

Infrastructure Requirements

Cattle are large animals and require the same fundamental infrastructure regardless of the number of cattle under production:

  • Boundary and internal fencing
  • A well-designed and functional set of yards
  • Watering points

Good fencing is crucial for a number of reasons; to stop animals straying (especially onto roads), for efficient husbandry and grazing management, to enable strong segregation (e.g. keeping bulls from heifers), and for biosecurity. Electric fencing can be incorporated into fencing systems for added security.

Yards allow safe, efficient handling of cattle for drafting and loading-out as well as restraining the animals for husbandry procedures such as drenching, vaccination, ear tagging and pregnancy testing. A cattle crush is therefore critical. When planning and constructing stockyards, it is important to ensure that operator safety is carefully considered, e.g. it is important that the yards are designed so that the stock handler is able to easily move out of danger should the need arise. For more detailed information about cattle yards refer to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries cattle yards and equipment page.

Access to plentiful and good quality water is essential, preferably via reticulated troughs rather than from creeks and dams which can become dirty and fouled.

Harvesting & Processing

There are a large number of selling systems available to beef producers – and they each vary in their efficiency and suitability for individual enterprises and circumstances. Meat & Livestock Australia identifies a range of options for selling beef cattle:

  • Saleyard auction – Livestock are transported to central saleyards and sold to the highest bidder. Prices reflect supply and demand in the market on the day.
  • Meat Standards Australia (MSA) eligible sales – Cattle can only be sold through MSA licensed saleyards or livestock exchanges. Producers and agents must be registered.
  • Paddock sales – Livestock are inspected on the vendor’s property by a buyer or agent and sold from the paddock.
  • Stockyard sales – Livestock are weighed, graded and priced for sale.
  • Over the hooks (OTH) – Livestock are delivered directly to the abattoir with change of ownership taking place at the abattoir scales. Terms of sale vary between abattoirs. Livestock must be accurately assessed for sale to avoid price penalties.
  • AuctionsPlus – An electronic online auction for the sale of livestock by description. Combines the best features of the saleyard system and allows direct consignment to the abattoir or buyer.
  • Forward contracts – A contractual agreement between a seller (e.g. producer) and buyer (e.g. processor) to supply a given product at a future point in time for a given price. In some cases the price is fixed, thereby reducing the producer’s exposure to a fall in market price.
  • Producer alliances – A group of producers working together to service market place requirements.
  • Value-based marketing – Based on the principle of being paid for the inherent value (quality and quantity) of the product to the buyer and the end user, such as systems that provide clear feedback from the consumer to the producer and has a pricing system supporting these signals.

Producers may use one or more of these selling options based on a range of personal and business considerations including tradition, financial position, urgency to sell and appetite for risk. In considering selling method options and timing, it is important for producers to remain well informed of market trends and movements.

Beef cattle

Markets and Marketing

The Australian beef industry is dependent on export markets with approximately 60% of production going overseas. Supplying markets in a manner that ensures the quality and consistency of beef and livestock is crucial to the profitability of a beef cattle enterprise.

Some of the key factors affecting market assurance and product quality are:

  • Maintaining Australia’s freedom from major cattle diseases of economic importance e.g. BSE and FMD through strict quarantine laws.
  • Breeding – selecting animals for the most positive traits and cull those that will negatively affect the potential to meet market specifications.
  • Farm management – actively manage the health and welfare of livestock and avoid selling diseased livestock.
  • Managing and minimising on-farm risks associated with issues such as residues from animal health treatments, safe storage and use of farm chemicals and check all stock feeds and by-products for chemical residues.
  • Nutrition and feeding – ensure animals are well fed and watered at all times but especially in the lead up to slaughter where they should be gaining weight to help optimise eating quality.
  • Handling – ensuring yards and handling facilities are free of harmful hazards and that mustering, yarding and handling of stock is done as quietly and efficiently as possible.

For further detailed information on beef cattle markets in Australia refer to the Meat & Livestock Australia website section on supplying markets and the MBfP module on market specifications.

For live exports, the Australian Government introduced a new regulatory framework, the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), from October 2011. Under ESCAS, the exporter must provide evidence of compliance right through the supply chain before being issued with approval by the Department of Agriculture.  There is also information in relation to the transportation of animals that is relevant for producers.

Risks and Regulations

Risks/challenges

Like any primary production enterprise there are a range of risks associated with commercial production of beef cattle. These include the loss of vital export markets, weather, disease and pests, input prices and the price of products sold. Often these will be outside of a producers control but there are a range of tools that can assist producers better manage these risks.

Regulatory considerations

There are a range of requirements in relation to various regulatory issues including state animal welfare acts and regulations, on-farm animal welfare standards and guidelines, requirements in feedlots and for animal transportation. These regulations apply both domestically and for live export of animals. Meat & Livestock Australia’s Animal Welfare page provides further information on these regulations.

The beef industry has also initiated numerous measures along the supply chain to ensure meat safety and traceability. These measures are essential to ensure ongoing demand for Australia’s red meat products.

Publications

Publications/ information products

Cattle production in Australia Meat & Livestock Australia

Grazing and pasture management Meat & Livestock Australia

Feeding of cattle New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Feeding finishing and nutrition Meat & Livestock Australia

More Beef from Pasture – pasture utilisation Meat & Livestock Australia

More Beef from Pasture – cattle genetics Meat & Livestock Australia

More Beef from Pastures – Herd health and welfare Meat & Livestock Australia

More Beef from Pastures – meeting market specifications Meat & Livestock Australia

Lotfeeding and intensive finishing Meat & Livestock Australia

Water requirements for cattle New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Beef cattle yards New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Animal health, welfare and biosecurity Meat & Livestock Australia

Cattle breed types New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Selecting the right bull Meat & Livestock Australia

Genetics and breeding Meat & Livestock Australia

Preparing for market Meat & Livestock Australia

Market trends and analysis Meat & Livestock Australia

Preparing for market Meat & Livestock Australia

Tools and calculators Meat & Livestock Australia

Animal Welfare Meat & Livestock Australia

Meat safety and traceability Meat & Livestock Australia

National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) – New South Wales

NLIS – Northern Territory

NLIS – Queensland

NLIS – South Australia

NLIS – Tasmania

NLIS – Victoria

NLIS – Western Australia

Australian Animal Welfare Standards & Guidelines

Cattle health and disease New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Notifiable diseases Department of Primary Industries Victoria

Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline Australian Department of Agriculture

Humane destruction of stock New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Live exports – Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System Australian Department of Agriculture

Transportation – is it fit to load?

Other resources

Commonwealth Department of Agriculture

Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries

Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment

Primary Industries and Regions South Australia (PIRSA)

Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia

AgForce Queensland

Australian Farm Institute

National Farmers Federation

New South Wales Farmers’ Association

Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association Inc

Pastoralists & Graziers Association of Western Australia

Saleyard Operators Australia

South Australian Farmers Federation

Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association

Victorian Farmers Federation

Western Australian Farmers Federation

Image Gallery

Beef cattle grazing in paddock

Beef cattle at livestock sale in Victoria (source The Australian)

Beef cattle being fed in a feedlot

Range of raw beef cuts