The fuss about beef feedlots in NZ – experts give their views

Intensive beef farming is the latest farming practice to be called into question by animal welfare activists in a spate of news items.

Most of New Zealand’s beef herd are entirely grass-fed, but there are some feedlots around the country where cattle are sent to spend their final few months fattening up on grains.

Animal rights group SAFE released images last week of the Five Star Beef Ltd feedlot near Ashburton, using them to call for a ban on feedlots in New Zealand. The group has concerns about animal welfare and says the system puts our international reputation at risk, while Fish and Game are worried about the environmental impacts of the farming system.

The Science Media Centre asked experts about the need for feedlots, their environmental impact and the influence of consumer attitudes on farming systems.

  • Dr Dave Houlbrooke, AgResearch science team leader for Environmental Research, comments:

How are feedlot systems used in New Zealand?

“There has been limited research about feedlots established in New Zealand, and the few feedlot operations there are here are typically different in scale to those we see overseas.

“We are not aware of any trend towards more of this type of farming system in NZ. Clearly there is a perceived advantage in some markets where the meat is recognised as coming from animals raised on pasture in New Zealand, but equally there are markets where grain-fed product has an advantage.”

Does farming this way change the meat?

“The meat will be different where the farming system is different, but that difference will depend on the feed used and how long the animals spend in the feedlots compared to being farmed on pasture.”

What are the environmental impacts of this type of farming compared to pasture-fed cattle or dairy?

“It’s important that feedlots are designed for drainage and for effluent to be captured and stored according to good practice guidelines that are already in place for standoff and feed pads which we see commonly in New Zealand. Where a good system like this is in place, the feedlots can present an advantage in less urine patches on the ground that result in nitrate leaching.”

Conflict of interest statement: AgResearch has commercial relationships with meat producers, including those who operate or are involved with feedlot systems in New Zealand.

  • Dr Anne Galloway, Associate Professor, Design for Social Innovation, Victoria University of Wellington comments:

How important are consumer attitudes towards farming styles?

“New Zealand livestock farming’s social license to operate is strongly influenced by consumer attitudes towards different farming styles. Current concerns about beef feedlot operations highlight the role that cultural values play in any public controversy.

“The large majority of New Zealand beef is produced in extensive, pasture-based systems that reinforce the cultural value of ‘clean and green’ food production. Any alternative can be seen by consumers as a betrayal of their values.

“Intensive farming feedlots, even if only used rarely and for short periods, can be seen by consumers as unnatural and therefore undesirable. As long as consumers see feedlots as a threat to animal welfare or the environment, they are also considered to be unsustainable and therefore unacceptable.

“Farmer and industry responses to these consumer concerns can be seen as defensive or evasive if they only justify existing practices and fail to address perceived conflicts in values, or what people believe to be important and good.

“As long as producers and consumers are seen to have incompatible cultural values, conflict resolution may remain elusive and largely immune to ‘evidence-based’ arguments. This does not necessarily mean that scientific research is being ignored or denied in favour of emotional responses, but rather that there is a breakdown in trust that there is a shared set of cultural values that will keep people fed, animals cared for, and the environment protected.”

Conflict of interest statement: None.

Source: Science Media Centre

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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