Beef Cattle Farming
Beef cattle farming is a key component of Canadian agriculture. The four Western provinces account for about 85 per cent of beef cattle on Canadian cattle farms, with nearly one-half in Alberta alone. Beef farms make up about one-quarter of all farms in Canada, second only to field crops, while the dollar value of live cattle exports ranks just behind spring wheat, canola and durum exports. Canada ranks among the world’s top 10 per capita consumers and exporters of beef.
The origins of beef cattle farming in Canada can be traced back to the import of dual-purpose cattle breeds as live sources of food for French and British fur trading posts. By the 17th century, cattle were raised as a source of draft power, food (dairy and meat) and hides by the French-speaking habitants on mixed subsistence farms along the St Lawrence Valley and the Bay of Fundy. Later, British colonials used cattle for the same purposes in the present-day Maritimes and Southern Ontario. Cattle were one of the mainstays of mixed farming that spread across the country with rural settlement, and ranching became particularly important in the rangelands of Western Canada.
While the number of beef cattle farms has been declining in a trend that can be traced back to the 1941 Census of Agriculture, average herd size on beef cattle farms is increasing. In the wake of the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in 2003, the total number of beef cattle in Canada dropped between the years 2005 and 2016.
Beef Cattle Breeds
Distinct breeds of cattle emerged in the 19th century. The British beef breeds were the first to arrive in most parts of Canada and some are still commonly recognized: Shorthorns were the first beef breed to become established in Canada in 1832; white-faced Herefords have a reputation for hardiness that is well suited to the rigors of Canadian climates; and Aberdeen Angus are best known as being polled and jet black in colour (although there is also a Red Angus). Angus breeders have been successful in having their beef differentiated as a premium quality meat product.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of European breeds, collectively known as “exotics,” gained entry to Canada. With origins in France (Charolais, Limousin and Blonde d’Aquitaine), Germany (Gelbvieh) and Switzerland (Simmental), exotic cattle breeds transformed Canada’s pastoral landscapes. While pure bred cattle with long and exclusive pedigrees are still esteemed in some circles, most commercial herds emphasize the importance of more functional attributes such as their ability to graze in rough conditions, efficiency of feed conversion to beef and the “hybrid vigour” associated with cross-breeding.
Beef Cattle Production
Most of Canada's beef cattle farms may be classified into one or a combination of three phases of beef cattle production: cow-calf operations that produce weaned calves; stocker or backgrounding operations that feed calves to maturity on forage; and finishing operations that feed cattle intensively to reach slaughter weight. These activities may be integrated on a single farm, but most large scale cattle farms specialize in just one of the three phases.
Cow-calf operators maintain a breeding herd of beef cows and oversee their reproduction. There are over 60,000 cow-calf farms across the country. Canada's beef-cow herd is estimated at approximately 5 million head. Breeding herds range in size from as few as five to 10 cows on small mixed farms to several hundred or more on large ranches. The breeding herd consists of cows and heifers of a single breed or crossbreed that are carefully selected for maternal characteristics such as mothering ability, ease of calving, milk production and beef quality traits of their offspring. Performance-tested, purebred bulls from breeds noted for the desirable characteristics of their offspring make up the male side of the herd; one bull can typically breed with about 30 cows (see Animal Breeding).
Most breeding takes place in summer when cows are exposed to bulls for a period of one to two months. Yearling heifers are bred with sires known to produce small and easily-delivered calves and give birth at about age two. Unlike dairy production, which relies on artificial insemination, most cow-calf producers use live bulls to detect which cows are in heat (i.e., ready to mate) in an open pasture environment. Most calving takes place from February to March, and a radio frequency identity tag is fastened to the calf’s ear as soon as possible after birth to facilitate identification and trace back to its herd of origin.
Calves remain close to their mothers until they are weaned at about 275 kg (600 pounds). In the late spring the cow-calf pairs are rounded up and the calves are briefly separated from their mothers. If calves are not naturally hornless (from a polled breed), they are usually dehorned and males are castrated to become steer calves. Calf processing typically includes vaccination against common diseases (e.g., blackleg), and an artificial hormone pellet is implanted in the ear (which is never used for human consumption) to stimulate growth.
When calves are weaned in the autumn, the herd is typically separated into groups, each with different feed and management requirements. Pregnant yearling heifers and heifer calves for breeding the next spring may benefit from being separated from mature pregnant cows. Stocker calves (both steers and slaughter heifers) may be sold to specialty backgrounders to add weight and frame size as quickly as possible. In large herds, the bulls are also fed and managed separately from the cow herd until the optimal time for breeding.
The western orientation of Canada’s beef farms is explained by the importance of pasture and rangeland for cow-calf operations. The production of winter feed (hay and silage) is a labour- intensive activity in both summer, when forage is cut and baled, and in winter, when it must be delivered to the cattle. Winter feed is vital to cattle production and if home-grown supplies of forage are insufficient, additional hay must be purchased and shipped to the farm, often at considerable expense.
Concentrated in Québec and Ontario, Canada’s dairy herd also makes a contribution to beef production. Male dairy calves and heifers that are surplus to milk quotas contribute about 10 per cent of Canada's veal and young beef supply. Cows that are culled from the dairy herd when they are too old to produce milk efficiently are slaughtered and used mainly for ground beef.
Stocker production, sometimes known as “backgrounding,” is a period of growth between weaning and finishing for slaughter (six to 12 months), which is aimed at maximizing growth of muscle and bone. It requires substantial pasture to facilitate summer-time grazing and winter-time feeding on hay and silage sometimes supplemented with grain. Stocker specialists typically buy weaned steer and heifer calves which are fed a low-energy diet of forage to build frame size before they are ready to be resold to feedlot operators.
Finishing, the final step in preparing animals for slaughter, aims to increase body weight and value of the finished animal. While some cow-calf operators may finish their own cattle in one fully-integrated process, most finishing is now done in specially designed units. Mixed farms in Ontario and Eastern Canada traditionally fed up to 200 cattle per year to enhance the value of home-grown crops and to provide a winter occupation and source of revenue. However, much larger feedlots with a capacity of 10,000–25,000 cattle are found in Alberta and Saskatchewan. These large-scale feedlots are equipped with feed mills to mix a precisely formulated ration, large bunker silos to prepare hundreds of tonnes of corn and barley silage, and specialized mixing trucks to distribute precisely measured feed rations in the long feed bunks that line each pen.
Backgrounding and cattle finishing are described as margin businesses. Profits come from two sources: price margin, i.e., the difference between the buying and selling price (e.g., the original 300 kg weight of a steer purchased for $1.80/kg and sold for $2.00/kg would yield a profit of $60.00 through the $0.20/kg price margin); and feed margin, i.e., the difference between the cost of a kilogram of gain and the selling price of that gain. For example, if it cost $1.90/kg to put on 200 kg in the feedlot and the 500 kg finished steer sold for $2.00/kg, the operator would gain $20.00 through a $0.10/kg feed margin.
Astute buying and selling may govern price margin profits, but the feed margin is dependent on cattle that are efficient users of feed, and on the skill and precision with which rations are formulated to maximize weight gain per dollar of feed. Six-to-eight month old calves are the most efficient converters of feed (6–8 units of feed per unit of weight-gain), but the slowest weight gainers (1.0–1.1 kg/day) and may be in the feedlot for as long as 180 days. Yearlings are less efficient (8–9 units of feed per unit gain), but gain faster (1.1–1.3 kg/day) so they may require as little as 90 days in the feedlot before they are ready for slaughter. Heifers gain slightly more slowly in the feedlot and finish at lighter weights than is the case for steers.
The type of feed provided to beef cattle varies enormously from region to region, and throughout the life course of the animals. The large number of cows and small number of bulls required for reproduction are fed on standing grass during the growing season, and on cured hay and silage when grass is dormant in the colder months of the year. Summer grazing of the cow herd is managed carefully by a spatial distribution of watering facilities that encourage the cattle to graze evenly and over the broadest area of pasture. Cattle are attracted to salt blocks which provide trace minerals to supplement the diet and these too can be strategically located in areas of pasture that might otherwise be under-grazed. Rotational grazing is also managed using electric fences which can be easily moved to avoid over-grazing. While winter grazing may augment the diet in some parts of Canada, winterfeeding with home-grown hay or silage from grasses, legumes or cereal crops, possibly supplemented with grain or a commercially prepared protein meal is the norm. The cattle will congregate where winter feed is supplied. Thus the distribution of cattle in the field is the outcome of a variety of feeding practices that are planned for sustained use of the pasture and feed resources on farms.
The key in finishing is a high-energy feed ration (e.g., barley or corn) combined with roughages (chopped barley and corn silage with some hay and straw). In local areas, by-products (such as dried distillers' and brewers’ grains, sugar beet pulp or unsaleable cull potatoes) may become an important part of the blend at different times of the year. Roughages are usually used in the early part of the finishing period while a high-energy feed is dominant in the ration as animals approach slaughter weight.
For many years, and in most parts of Canada, finishing cattle on grass alone was considered uneconomical. The carotene in grass gives beef a thin, yellow fat covering — something consumers found unappealing. Traditional cattle feeders still insist that grain finishing is essential to achieve the creamy white fat colour and marbling that consumers demand both in Canada and overseas. However a growing market segment prefers grass-fed cattle, believing that their meat products offer health benefits and have superior palatability. Connoisseurs of grass-fed beef claim that they can identify subtle regional and seasonal differences in the various grasses, forbs and legumes consumed by cattle which affect the taste of the meat. A relatively small but growing number of cattle farms finish cattle exclusively on grass and hay. Grass-fed cattle are typically slaughtered at small provincially inspected abattoirs and the beef is sold at the farm gate, at farmer’s markets, and in specialty meat stores. While this is still a niche market supplied by a small number of boutique cattle producers, it is viewed by some as a promising opportunity given the overall decline in average beef consumption per capita in Canada.
Ethical Beef Farming
It has been suggested that cattle ranching is the most ethical of all forms of animal agriculture and the most unchanged among animal production systems. Like sheep and goats, cattle are raised outside and grow most of the way to slaughter weight in relatively natural surroundings that often have no alternative use as a food-producing land resource. And while cattle finishing is certainly an intensive form of confined animal production, it is nowhere nearly as intrusive as the conditions in hog or poultry barns. Feedlot cattle can express many of their natural behaviours despite being confined in a pen. Nonetheless, castration, dehorning and branding are deeply problematic from an animal welfare point of view. The environmental impact and health effects of large concentrations of feedlots in Southern Alberta, most notably in Lethbridge County, have led to calls for greater regulation of cattle finishing as a rural land use. Combined with concerns about the human health impacts of artificial hormones in beef cattle production, excessive use of antibiotic pharmaceuticals, and E-coli contamination of beef and the streams that flow through farms, these factors have led to rising public scrutiny and social concern with the conditions of cattle production and beef processing, a level of consciousness that did not exist just a few decades ago. At a global scale, methane emissions attributable to ruminants and their manure appear to make a considerable contribution to the anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases (see Climate Change). For these reasons, conventional cattle farms are being challenged as never before to justify their practices while organic, natural, and grass-fed beef producers are building mainstream markets out of what was once considered a niche.