Learning about Agriculture: 2. The Tagged Beast – Beef

The beef industry has been under scrutiny in the last few years, one example being due to the continuing increase in climate awareness resulting in diet changes towards veganism. Cattle are responsible for the greatest global emissions among livestock with beef the most as compared to dairy. So how is all this emission produced?[i]

Food is broken down by both enzymes and microbes in the ruminant gut.  The enzymatic metabolism produces hydrogen gas as a byproduct which is used to form either VFA (energy source) or by the bacteria to produce methane. Changes in diet can change methane emissions which is why the pressure on the beef market to adapt has led to exciting ideas such as that of adding seaweed to cattle diet.  It was found that adding just a little of the algae Asparagopsis taxiformis to their diet reduced methane production by up to 95% – consideration needs to be taken as current studies are in vitro.  For me this was such an incredible find as usually cattle get such negative press regarding methane emissions but now, with this insight, hopefully things will change.  I mean, it’s a long way away from being mass produced and widely available to farmers but there is hope.

Another hit to the UK beef market was due to a new disease outbreak in the 80s which led to widespread culling of cattle and distrust in the beef market.  In 1995, UK beef exports reached over £6oo million but by 1998, it had fallen to just £16 million[ii]. The disease commonly known as ‘Mad Cow Disease’ or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by an accumulation of prions – which are misfolded proteins, in the brain and spinal cord.  The most common signs were – changes in temperament, tremors, excessive licking[iii]. At this point in time, it was common to feed cattle a meat-and-bone meal in order to increase their protein intake. This means that cattle were eating the remains of their own species.  This infected meal was how BSE was transmitted throughout the UK.

It took four years from the first case for this practice to be banned in the UK but the damage was done. The public was told that beef was safe to eat but 5 years later the first zoonotic case of BSE occurred, which caused a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) resulting in a total of 144 deaths in the UK with the average age at death being 28. The young ages of death may be due to a higher consumption of infected meat but it is still unclear.  The incubation period is thought to be 13 years after which psychiatric symptoms develop then ataxia and dementia[iv].  Currently, there is no treatment available for prionic diseases.

It wasn’t just beef economy that suffered, as new legislations were introduced to improve traceability of cattle movements.  Passports were, and still are, issued to everycattle on the holding which must be updated each time, individually, even if the cattle are moved from one holding to another owned by the same farmer[v].  If you don’t have a passport, a source of income becomes difficult as you cannot move the animals from your land during its life and it cannot go into the food chain – which would be a major issue for beef producers[vi].  You may think that farmers can get away with not having passports or not updating them as who’s going to check a couple of boxes full of passports thoroughly? Well, there are inspections and is there are major issues then movement restrictions may be placed on the animals, and payment reductions from subsidy claims.

Side tracking a little, I wanted to know more about what I had heard at home – a subsidy called Single Farm Payments.  This name was actually changed a few years ago to become the ‘Basic Payment Scheme’ which is an income support available to farmers [vii].  Farming is a volatile business due to factors ranging from weather to slow price responsiveness of demand and supply where long term financial complication for the producer. In order to help small farms which supply us with something that we cannot live without – food, subsidies are granted.In Wales 56% of farms made a loss or would have without this vital support[viii].  That is a huge percentage to comprehend but it is a subsidy that must be continued in order to have a stable supply chain and affordable food. Without it, there would be fewer small farms, and from what I can image, there would probably be more intensive farming.  On the other hand, food production could be reduced resulting in increased food imports.

The subsidy is allocated by hectares and in Wales the rate is between 103.24-125.65 euros per hectare[ix]. In 2016, Wales paid out £224.0 million in BPS but has a gross value added of £457 million[x], which is over double and which is pretty good coming from investing in something that doesn’t make much profit. Its rather similar to what’s happening right now in the UK.  The government has introduced many new schemes to protect people and companies during this recession – which is causing government debt, but will hopefully stop the country falling into a depression. My knowledge in economics is non-existent but in a few years when we begin/have recovered from the effects of COVID-19 I would like to try to understand the stance that the government is taking right now in order to avoid problems in the future.

Back to the point, for cattle, the disease has an incubation period of an average of 4-5 years which means that cattle will show no early symptoms and as it is diagnosed through the observation of clinical symptoms, only cases in the later-stage are detected.[xi]Even today, there are no tests available to detect BSE in live cases before onset of symptoms.

So what happened to the infected cattle? They were culled – there is no treatment available for BSE, and even if there was keeping farmed animals is very different from pets. You can pet sit your pet and care for it until it dies, with insurance to cover vet costs, but for farm animals, unfortunately, the only option is to cull. Over 200,000 cattle were slaughtered in the UK due to BSE[xii], not all from confirmed bases but as a precautionary measure and so there was a compulsory cull of cattle born between October 1990 and june 1993x.

Growing up on a farm there is a lot of agricultural terminology flying around but until this blog I realized that I was pretty clueless even in that.  I thought that a bull was just any male but it’s a male which breeds, as compared to a castrated male – a steer.  And its not just basic terminology that had me baffled – what on earth are all the different types of herds?!

Suckler bred herd is from what I’ve gathered, ‘beef specific herds’ where the mothers are not milked and so they are able to suckle. Dairy bred is where calves are separated from the mother and fed using artificial milk (this is a smell that I SOOO miss. Monologue moment = I remember my dad mixing the powder with warm water and I can just remember the smell, like there’s a bucket of the artificial milk right in front of my nose right now.  A thick, sickly sweet smell – lovely.) since the mother is being milked.

I love calves. They’re just so cute.  When I was younger I used to climb into the individual pens to be with them.  I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure that our calving season was during the late winter or early spring.  There is so much to consider in terms of calving season not just ‘introduce a bull at this time to get calves at this time’.  For heifers its important that they are the correct liveweight etc as they are more prone to difficulties while calving and so measures need to be taken to reduce both difficulties and mortality.  These include mating with bulls that have good Estimated Breeding Values (EBV) for example, one of the traits include gestation length. A shorter times period means that the calf will be smaller in size resulting in easier calving.  These traits need to be carefully balances with calving ease and traits that will be good for the herd and farmer, such as eye muscle area EBV[xiii]– a positive value will mean that the offspring will be muscular – which is advantageous for the farmer when selling. I’ll try and learn more about morbidity and mortality during calving in a later blog.

It’s not just the care before calving that needs to be considered. Calving intervals depend on many factors – those with a poor body condition after first calving will have an anoestrous period of 50-60 days, length of suckling will also dictate anoestrous period[xiv].  I think that this is mainly due to the fact that the heifers are not only growing a calf and producing milk but are also still growing themselves. These factors reduce the mating period, which causes concerns over whether the cow will calve next season.

A finishing herd is the stage prior to slaughter which means that it’s where the cattle gain a sudden increase in weight which can range from 12 months (intensive) to over 20 months (extensive).  I think we had an average herd size for dairy when we were in production and now, even though they’re not our sheep and cattle, there are animals in the fields right now and so I don’t agree with the intensive 12 systems where they are fed on concentrates instead of grazing in order to increase the maximize the liveweight before slaughter.  In this instance, beef seems, and is really, a much harsher type of agriculture as compared to dairy.  You rear to maximize the meat on an animal, year after year, while with dairy you’re with the same herd for much longer…I don’t know, I’m not very good at explaining such things. Saying that, it was interesting to see the typical finishing systems and the weight aims from the different types of herd from MeatPromotion Wales[xv].

A document I read was going on about the different meat that comes from beef cattle and even though since going to University I have seriously expanded my cooking repertoire if you asked me from which area a ‘hock’ or ‘brisket’ came from and what is it best used for, I’d look pretty confused.  Maybe that should be added to my growing list of ‘Things I should know but don’t’.  It had an easy guide to fat assessment – which would have been helpful a few years ago when I was in Wales YFC. From the guide you could evaluate how much fat was on the animal which would indicate price at slaughter[xvi]from the EUROP classification grid. Lean and muscular cattle result in higher prices as compared to emaciated and obese.

Well, there it is. Took forever and a day and I still feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what I could learn – especially about calving and cattle diseases.  Hopefully I’ll manage to link some to future blog posts and squeeze them in.

Until next time.


[i]Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2018. Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model. Available at: http://www.fao.org/gleam/results/en/

[ii]DEFRA. 2014. Detailed figures on the value and volume of UK imports and exports of food, feed and drink by indigeneity, degree of processing and commodity type, from 1988.

[iii]John W. Willesmith for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1998. Manual on bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

[iv]European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 2017. Facts about variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.  Available at: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/vcjd/facts

[v]Government Legislation. 1996. The Cattle Passports Order 1996. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1996/1686/body/made

[vi]British Cattle Movements Service. 2014. Cattle Passports: What to do if problems arise.  Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/cattle-passports-what-to-do-if-problems-arise

[vii]European Commission. 2019. CAP explained – direct payments for farmers 2015-2020.Available at: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/541f0184-759e-11e7-b2f2-01aa75ed71a1

[viii]Welsh Government. 2019. Statistical First Release Farm Incomes in Wales, April 2018 to March 2019.

[ix]J. Clark. For Townsend Chartered Surveyors [date unknown] Welsh BPS Entitlements User Guide.Available at:  https://townsendcharteredsurveyors.co.uk/farm-quota/entitlements/welsh-bps-entitlements-user-guide/

[x]Welsh Government. [date unknown] Agriculture in Wales, 2019.

[xi]WHO. 2002. Understanding the BSE threat.

[xii]Animal & Plant Health Agency. 2019. Cattle: TSE surveillance statistics, general statistics on BSE cases in Great Britain.

[xiii]Unknown author and date. Charolais Breedplan – understanding EBVs, selection indexes and accuracy.Available at: http://abri.une.edu.au/online/pages/understanding_ebvs_char.htm

[xiv]NADIS Animal Health Skills. 2009. Beef Herd Fertility 2.

[xv]Meat Promotion Wales. 2014. Beef finishing systems – options for beef farms in Wales.

[xvi]Meat Promotion Wales [date unknown] Beef producers’ handbook “from gate to plate”.