Note: the words ‘cow’ and ‘cattle’ are used interchangeably in this article to refer to both male and female bovines. Cow technically refers to a female, however there is no word to refer to cattle in the singular form that is gender neutral; as a result cow is often used to refer to singular cattle, male or female.

Cows are gentle giants, each having their own unique personality and traits. They develop social structures within their communities, spending time in different groups depending on their ranking in the herd. Cows have incredible memories and can individually identify up to 70 other herd members. They are affectionate creatures and build relationships with other members of the herd who are important to them.

While cows can live up to 25 years naturally, their precious lives are cut short in the ‘beef’ cattle industry, killed at just 18 months old.

Breeding

Both natural breeding and artificial insemination (AI) are used within the beef cattle industry. The use of AI can be attractive, as it gives farmers significant control over the genetics of their herds – breeding out ‘undesired’ traits or exaggerating ‘desired’ traits. 


Anal probe used to force edjaculation in bulls.

Before a cow can be inseminated, semen is collected from a bull. This is most commonly done using electro-ejaculation. Electro-ejaculation involves forcing an anal probe that vibrates into a bull’s anus, causing him to involuntarily ejaculate, their semen subsequently collected.


Industry diagram for artificial insemination

The semen is then injected into the cow’s vagina whilst she is restrained: the operator’s hand is forced into her anus to hold her cervix and the semen is deposited into her cervix’s opening.

Painful procedures

Cattle bred for beef endure several painful, standard procedures in their short lives. Cattle under the age of 6 months are not required by law to be given pain relief when they undergo these procedures, causing them extreme pain and distress. 


Tools used for dehorning cattle.

Cattle go through awful procedures to remove or prevent the growth of their horns, making cows easier to control and less likely to ‘damage’ each other’s skins (used for leather products). All methods of dehorning and disbudding have been identified as acutely painful.

Disbudding is the practice of destroying horn-producing cells before skull attachment, preventing future growth. Hot cautery method is used widely in Australia, where a hot iron is pressed into the top of the skull where the budding horn buds are, cauterising them.

Dehorning is the removal of horns from cattle after skull attachment has already occurred. The procedure is undertaken whilst the cow/calf is restrained and unable to escape. Industry-recommended methods to dehorn cattle include scoop, knife and cup dehorning. Investigation has revealed cattle screaming out in agonising pain during dehorning.


A cow restrained in a ‘cattle crush’

Cattle are also put through the painful process of branding, used for identification purposes. There are two methods used to brand cattle; hot-iron branding and freeze branding. Hot iron branding involves pressing a hot iron into the skin of the animal, whilst they are restrained and unable to escape, forming a permanent mark on their skin. Freeze branding is a similar process, however it uses supercooled liquid nitrogen to destroy hair and skin follicles that produce pigment, meaning freeze brands appear as white hairs in the shape of the brand.


Hot iron branding.

Cattle are also castrated on farms to avoid any unwanted breeding. The most widely utilised method is the scalpel blade method, where the scrotum is cut open and the testicles are removed. This process is performed whilst cattle are completely conscious, without any pain relief. Other methods include the band method that cuts blood flow to the testicles, causing the tissue to die and eventually fall off, and the clamp method which crushes the spermatic cord of the animal. All methods cause extreme pain and prolonged suffering to the animals.

Feedlots


Cattle crammed in a crowded feedlot. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur 

Feedlots are cramped, barren fenced off areas where cattle are fed a diet of grain until they reach slaughter weight. Animals in feedlots are subject to filthy conditions, where they are more susceptible to stress and illnesses including footrot, botulism, respiratory disease, and liver abscesses.


Feedlot in Queensland, Australia.

Approximately 40% of Australia’s total beef supply and 80% of beef sold in supermarkets is sourced from the cattle feedlot sector. Further, the largest feedlots in the US are said to be able to hold up to 100,000 head of cattle.

Live export


Cattle aboard a live export ship. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur

Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of live cattle. Between 2018-19 1.3 million cattle were exported live overseas. The live export trade subjects animals to long journeys, cramped on ships where they are often not provided sufficient food and water. Thousands die in transit every year. Cows are most often exported to countries where they have even fewer legal protections than in Australia. In 2011, ABC aired ‘A bloody business’, which shed light on the horrific treatment of Australian farmed animals exported to Indonesia.


One method used by live export ships to dispose of the deceased is to throw them overboard. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur

Slaughter


Cattle on crowded transport truck. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals

Cattle are slaughtered at a fraction of their lifespan, just 18 months old. Cattle are taken to slaughterhouses in crowded trucks and are kept there in holding pens until they are killed. In order to stun them a captive bolt pistol or bullet penetrates their skull and pierces their brain. Stunning methods have been found to frequently be ineffective, leaving cattle to suffer prolonged deaths.


Cow terrified before being shot with a captive bolt gun.Once they have been stunned, cows are tipped out of the knockbox and have their throats cut, before their bodies are processed.

Environmental impacts

Beef is the most environmentally impactful animal-protein produced, contributing to a range of environmentally damaging outcomes including greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, land clearing and eutrophication. In the US alone, approximately 320 million hectares of land is used for ‘livestock’ grazing –  the equivalent of 41% of the total land area of continental USA. Rapid and devastating losses of biodiversity are occurring around the globe, and protecting and restoring the world’s natural ecosystem is vital in safeguarding the future of our planet.

Greenhouse gas emissions

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each individual ‘beef’ cow produces up to 18 tonnes of manure annually, with their manure producing a greenhouse gas emission known as methane. Methane is identified to be around 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas. Over a period of 100 years, the global warming potential of methane is around 25 times that of CO2, meaning one tonne of methane is the equivalent of around 25 tonnes of CO2

To put this into perspective, producing just 100 grams of beef protein produces an average of 50kg of greenhouse gases, whereas 100g of tofu only produces around 2kg of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite being much more impactful than CO2, methane breaks down in the atmosphere faster. Amidst a global climate emergency eliminating the methane produced by cattle would be essential to halting the rising global temperatures. 

Water scarcity

The production of ‘beef’ cattle is extremely water intensive. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of beef, whereas growing 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres. In a world where approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, using so much of the world’s water to raise livestock seems grossly unethical.

A koala and their young: a native Australian animal classified as endangered

Land clearing

Between 2013 and 2018 it was found that 73% of land clearing across the state of Queensland was to make way for beef production. Clearing results in loss of vegetive cover that is vital in preventing erosion, as well as a loss of topsoil, which is crucial to ecological productivity.

Land clearing results in devastating habitat loss for the world’s precious native wildlife. In order to protect native species whose populations are already in staggering decline, land clearing for animal agriculture must stop.

Cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of the Amazon rainforest destruction. Brazil is the biggest exporter of beef in the world, supplying the world’s demand for beef. Land is often cleared illegally by use of fires, destroying native vegetation that is home to indegenous plants and animals.In order to produce just 100 grams of beef an average of 164m2 of land is required.

Land clearing in Brazil. Image: AP Photo/Andre Penner
Waste beside a feedlot. Image: Mishka Henner

Water pollution (eutrophication)

The beef cattle sector is also responsible for considerable water pollution. Cows excrete some of the nutrients they ingest in their waste, including phosphate and nitrogen. The run-off from cattle waste enters waterways, causing excess nutrients in water systems.

Eutrophication is when an environment is enriched with nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, increasing plant and algae growth. This excess of nutrients results in low-oxygen (hypoxic) areas, causing dead zones in our oceans where most species of animals and plants are unable to survive.

Human impact

The mental and physical health implications for workers

It is not in human nature to want to harm or kill animals. In fact, doing so, particularly for a prolonged period of time, has significant mental health impacts on those inflicting the harm. It is common for slaughterhouse workers to suffer from a form of post traumatic stress disorder known as perpetrator-induced traumatic stress (PITS).

Studies have indicated higher rates of violent crimes (such as sexual and domestic) in areas surrounding abattoirs. This may be attributed to the poor mental health of workers.  

Abattoir workers have been known to seek help similar to that of war veterans, suffering from anxiety, anger, hostility and even psychoticism.

As well as the mental toll experienced by workers in slaughterhouses, they are also infamously physically unsafe places to work. Extreme temperatures, intense noise, harsh chemicals and bacteria are just some of the things workers are exposed to in slaughterhouses, as well as commonly experiencing work-related upper limb musculoskeletal disorders.

Further, abattoir workers are often immigrants or resettled refugees, often having little or no other options for work opportunities, essentially having their situations exploited to work a job that is both physically and mentally unsafe.

The prevalence of factory farms and feedlots in marginalised communities

Intensive animal farms impact upon the health of the surrounding community, with residents often exposed to hazardous chemicals and airborne particulate matter. Factory farms and feedlots are disproportionately placed within low-income and/or predominantly black and brown communities. These communities often experience the brunt of the health implications of factory farms, whilst simultaneously having inadequate access to health care. The existence of intensive farms in these communities perpetuates economic and racial injustices and thus amount to environmental racism.

Alternatives

For just about every beef product, there is now a delicious, cruelty-free, plant-based alternative. Choosing to switch to plant-based beef alternatives is not only good for cows, it reduces demand in an industry that is harmful to workers, it is beneficial for your health and far less impactful on our precious environment.

Fable: Plant based braised beef

Fable is a shiitake mushroom based meat alternative designed to be used in place of braised beef. It is perfect in curries, stews, bolognese, ragu, tacos, burritos, pies and the list goes on. You won’t miss out on flavour with this product, it is incredible!

Fable is 100% plant-based, however there are some recipes on their page that have dairy, which is easily replaced with the plethora of vegan cheese alternatives.

Available at Woolworths.

Jackfruit

Jackfruit is quite amazing. As the name suggests, it’s a fruit, with a texture akin to that of meat. Jackfruit is versatile, you can flavour it in so many different ways from smokey barbeque to amazing asian flavours. Perfect for wraps, nachos, kebabs and so much more. You wont regret adding this amazing fruit to your shopping list!Available in major supermarkets Woolworths and Coles.

Beyond meat: patties

Beyond Meat is a revolutionary product that has had those trying it amazed ever since it hit the shelves. Never before has a plant based product so accurately hit the mark in taste, texture and aesthetics. Beyond Meat burger patties taste EXACTLY like beef patties, minus the suffering. Beyond Meat will be a winner for even the biggest meat lovers – you won’t even taste the difference! 

Found at major supermarket Coles.

Other patties to try:

  • The Vegan Factor: Beevee Burgers – Woolworths
  • Gardein: Ultimate Beefless Patty – Woolworths
  • V2: Plant Based Burgers – Woolworths
  • Bean Supreme: Black Bean & Beetroot Burger – Woolworths
  • NextGen: Plant Based Burger – Woolworths

Beyond meat: mince

Following the huge success of their patty, beyond meat brought out a mince alternative, sure to impress even the fussiest of eaters. Much like the patty alternative this mince is on point in taste and texture – you won’t even notice you’ve made a switch.

Other mince alternatives:

  • V2 Plant Based Mince – Woolworths
  • Textured Vegetable Protein – Coles and Woolworths
  • Naturli: Minced
  • Made With Plants: Meat Free Meat – Woolworths

Gardein: ultimate beefless burger patty

Another amazing beef patty alternative with 4 patties in a pack. These are the perfect addition to a hamburger with the lot or a classic cheese burger (with plant-based cheese of course!). We absolutely love this product.

Gardien is an entirely plant-based company.

Available at Woolworths

Linda McCartney: Sausages

Linda McCartney has an amazing range of plant-based products. Linda McCartney sausages are delicious and juicy, perfect in bread with sauce or with mash potato and gravy. There is no compromise on flavour when it comes to this product, we highly recommend! These can be found in Woolworths (AUS), Organic & Real (Dubai), Morrisons (UK) 

Other sausage alternatives:

  • Unreal Co.: Beefy Brat Sausages – Woolworths
  • Vegie Delight – Coles
  • Herb & Sons: Beef-Free Sausages – Coles.

Vegie delight: Roast 

Vegie delight roast is a family favourite, perfect for the classic sunday roast or a superb Christmas lunch alternative. Add some garlic and rosemary before putting in the oven, team with your favourite roast vegetables and gravy and you’re set! https://www.vegiedelights.com.au/products/vegie-roast-2/ 

Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

Textured vegetable protein is a by-product of extracting soybean oil. It is another great alternative to mince, easy to flavour and quick to cook. This product is perfect in a range of dishes from shepherds pie, bolognese sauce, DIY burger patties and so much more. TVP can be found in the health food section at major supermarkets across Australia.