Animal Health and Welfare: Pain Mitigation

Since GRSB was founded, we have had a focus on animal welfare; see our Principle on Animal Health & Welfare and our goal to provide cattle with good quality of life and an environment where they can thrive. As such, we have recognised animal welfare as being one of the key areas of sustainability for the beef industry. Not only is welfare a key issue in the ethics and the societal acceptance of beef production, but it is instrumental in other aspects of sustainability, including the use of natural resources, emissions and efficiency, as well as farmer livelihoods.

In both our P&C and our Goal, we reference the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (WOAH) terrestrial code for beef cattle welfare; while WOAH is the global organisation for animal health and welfare, there are a wide range of challenges posed by different production systems, regions, breeds and categories of animals.  Social stress related to stocking density is more likely in highly intensive systems, whereas extensive systems may expose beef cattle to predation risk, parasites or fluctuations in feed availability while hot climates are more likely to lead to heat stress. Different breeds may also have varying susceptibility to heat stress or disease while different categories of animals require different management. Solutions tailored to each context are needed to address their challenges and optimize beef cattle welfare.

Measurement of welfare presents its own challenges. Animal welfare audits tend to focus on resources, e.g. the facilities, equipment and management practices on farms. However, these audits don’t measure direct outcomes for the animals. Animal-based indicators that cover behaviour, physiology, health, hygiene, locomotion and body condition scores aim to provide more objective information on how the animals are coping with their environment and management.

While animal-based measures are the most direct way to determine welfare, they do require observation and even with sampling methodologies e.g. Welfare Quality® Assessment, this presents a challenge to move to scale. A combination of animal and resource based measures presents a way to set and measure targets. We know, for example, that transport and handling are stressful for cattle, leading to compromised immunity. Both preconditioning and personnel training in low stress handling can improve outcomes. We also know that the adoption of pain mitigation (anaesthetics or analgesics) improves outcomes for cattle undergoing painful procedures such as castration or dehorning, so this is a clear positive action handlers can take.

The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, in line with the national red meat industry, aspires to 100% use of pain relief in unavoidable aversive procedures by 2030. Similarly, the European Roundtable on Beef Sustainability has a target for the use of pain relief for all surgical procedures, and all forms of castration, dehorning and disbudding. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef also has set a target to utilise practices that support animal welfare such as breed selection, polled (no horned) animals and pain relief. The challenge is that not all countries have registered products for pain mitigation in cattle. The US has no products for on-label use in cattle. The USRSB has a target that cow calf operations, transporters and lot feeders have BQA certification.

A logical alternative to the pain of dehorning is to breed polled cattle, and while this cannot be achieved overnight and may not be an option for everyone, GRSB member AACo in Australia has set a target to introduce the poll gene throughout their herd, and has already reached 25%. At the same time, AACo is working with key industry partners to develop an internationally recognised AHW certification standard for extensive beef production by 2024.

GRSB processor members are the next link in the chain after producers and also play a key role in cattle welfare, and just as producers are committed to good welfare, processors are also striving to achieve high standards. Cargill is recognised for their commitment to animal welfare by the Business Benchmark for Animal Welfare (BBFAW ) in Tier 2. JBS has developed a global scorecard with 19 indicators, developed against the five freedoms of animal welfare, which is being implemented across all of their operations. Similarly Tyson uses the Five Domains Animal Welfare Framework across its global operations and introduced the Tyson Foods FarmCheck® program to audit welfare on farm.

GRSB’s working group on Animal Welfare will be identifying more practical projects we can support to achieve our goal of providing cattle with a life worth living in an environment in which they can thrive over the coming years, as well as collecting more data on the achievements of our members in this area.


Ruardiah Petre, Executive Director