Animal Welfare Activities For Beef Cattle Farmers

There is a significant body of national and EU legislation enacted relating to animal welfare. Here, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority explain how veterinary type methods, facility activity and feeding management can be maximised in line with the Code of Good Farming Practice.
calendar icon 10 December 2008
clock icon 15 minute read

Veterinary Type Activities


Disbudding of calves is carried out to reduce injuries and to comply with the Regulations (Diseases of Animals Act, 1966).

  • A cauterisation method (i.e. using a heated disbudding iron at 1-2 weeks of age to remove the horn buds is preferred to the use of caustic potash which can continue to produce pain after the operation is complete.
  • It is illegal to disbud a calf over 2 weeks old without using a local anaesthetic.
  • Veterinary advice is that all calves should be treated with a local anaesthetic when disbudding. Local anaesthetic may be obtained on prescription from veterinary surgeons.
  • The use of electro immobilisation device is not permitted.
  • A custom-built calf dehorning crate should be used to minimise stress to the calf and for optimum safety to the operator.

For Farmers participating in the Animal Welfare, Recording and Breeding Scheme (The Suckler Welfare Scheme):

  • All calves born in the herd must be disbudded within three weeks of birth, except where the horn buds do not emerge within this period, or for animals that are naturally polled.
  • Date of Disbudding must be recorded in the Animal Events System.

Common veterinary type activities must always be carried out in a manner that minimizes stress. These activities include: disbudding, castration, dosing and injecting.


Castration procedures must be carried out in compliance with the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act (1965). It is illegal to castrate calves over six months of age without using a local anaesthetic.

It is recommended that:

  • male calves intended for castration should be castrated between 2 and 6 months of age.
  • the operator should be trained in the burdizzo procedure.

Caesarean Section

Breeding policy should be such that the need for caesarean section at calving time is minimised. When a caesarean section is required to remove the calf from the uterus it should be undertaken by a veterinary surgeon with access to adequate help and proper facilities.

DIY Artificial Insemination

Farmers who wish to undertake DIY artificial insemination should receive adequate training in the AI technique such that internal injuries to the cow are avoided.


The operator should have handling facilities that restrain the animal so that the medicine can be administered with minimum stress or risk of injury to the animal.

It is recommended that:

  • the dosing equipment used is appropriate for the size of animal
  • dosing guns should be properly calibrated
  • care is taken to avoid injuring the animal’s throat
  • consider the use of suitable products e.g. "pour on"


Stockpersons should always adopt recommended best practice when administering injectable medicines. Careless use and administration of injectable materials can lead to carcase damage, compromise animal health and welfare and lead to potential food safety problems. It is recommended that producers:

  • Ensure that animals are handled and restrained in a manner that seeks to minimize stress.
  • Adhere to manufacturer recommendations on treatment rates and injection procedures.
  • Avoid injecting animals in the loin, hindquarter or other high value meat cut areas.
  • Maintain strict hygiene standards during injection.
  • Use single use (disposable) needles and syringes. In the rare event that a needle breaks when administering an injection, the broken needle is removed in a safe hygienic manner under veterinary supervision if necessary. Failure to remove a broken needle can give rise to animal welfare and potential food safety problems.
  • Used needles and syringes should be stored in a secure and clearly labelled container and disposed at a designated hazardous waste facility

Parasite Control

Parasite control is an important consideration in the welfare of cattle and appropriate action should be undertaken to control and/or prevent parasitic infection. External parasites or ringworm resulting in skin irritation cause the animal to scratch and be uncomfortable. Internal parasites including stomach worm, hoose, liver fluke and coccidia unless appropriately treated will result in morbidity and even mortality.

It is recommended that:

  • husbandry and grassland management practices should aim to minimise parasite problems where practical (e.g moving calves to “clean” pasture in midsummer to reduce exposure to stomach worms)
  • preventative parasite control programmes (e.g lice treatment in housed stock, anthelminthic treatments for young calves at pasture) are implemented to prevent undue parasite burdens in susceptible stock

Hoof Treatment

Correct hoof-trimming is of primary importance in the treatment of claw lesions, occasionally supplemented with antibiotic therapy (following veterinary surgeon advice) may be required. Use of footbaths is necessary in the control of the interdigital conditions, heel horn erosion and Mortellaro.

Sick or Injured Animals

  • Isolation facilities should be provided when necessary for the separation and care of sick or injured animals.
  • Special consideration on care should be given to casualty animals and every effort must be made to prevent them from suffering including swift veterinary euthanasia.

Facility Type Activity


Water availability and quality is important. Avoid contaminated dirty water that may restrict the animals’ water intake.

It is recommended that:

  • cattle have unrestricted access to a clean fresh water supply
  • water troughs or drinkers should be regularly cleaned and inspected daily to ensure that they are fully functional
  • water troughs should, in as far as is practical, should be protected or raised high enough (e.g. 750mm high) to prevent fouling by badgers or other wild animals
  • water supply is adequate to meet peak animal requirements i.e. will drinkers fill sufficiently quickly to avoid any animals in a group remaining thirsty
  • the water supply should be designed so as to minimise the risk of the water freezing in the supply line and thereby cutting off the supply to the cattle


  • Pastures should be properly fenced. Proper boundary fencing prevents contact with other groups of animals from neighbouring herds and reduces the risk of the transfer of infectious disease to the herd, prevents intrusions of neighbouring animals, which can cause distress and unease, the consequence of which could be aggressive behaviour and/or injury to animals and cattle in the herd.
  • Fences should not contain any hazards which could cause injury to the cattle.
  • Electric fencing should always be operated as per manufacturer instructions.


  • The provision of shelter for older animals from a production perspective is not critical in our temperate climate, as the adult ruminant produces excess body heat which must be dissipated.
  • Protection from wind and rain should be provided where possible particularly for young stock outdoors for the first time.
  • Outwintered cattle should have access to a well drained lying area.


Cattle are normally outdoor at pasture for a 7 to 8 month period each year.

  • Accommodating cattle indoors avoids undue damage to pastures in wet conditions particularly in the months of December or January when grass is in short supply. Housing must be designed to ensure effective effluent and slurry control.
  • Housing of cattle in Ireland was designed to provide shelter from winter climatic conditions and facilitates the provision of an adequate supply of feed and water.
  • All houses should be adequately ventilated allowing for an adequate supply of fresh air thus, allowing heat dissipation and preventing the build up of gases such as carbon dioxide, ammonia or slurry gases
  • Surfaces on which cattle walk should be designed, constructed and maintained so as to avoid discomfort, stress or injury to the animals and not so uneven that bruising of the feet occurs or be so smooth that slipping occurs.
  • The accommodation should contain sufficient source of natural or artificial light so as not to cause discomfort to the animals. Artificial light should also be provided to enable adequate inspection of the animals in particular for cows in late pregnancy and young calves.
  • Each building accommodation should have a suitable smoke or fire alarm system installed in order to detect fire or smoke at an early stage.
  • Uneaten or spoilt food should be removed to avoid attracting rodents or other undesirable wildlife.

Spatial Allowance

Slatted floor housing is an appropriate housing system for the Irish cattle population. Currently, there are more than 60,000 slatted floor units in operation in Ireland.

  • Housed stock should have freedom of movement and ample floor space for lying, grooming and normal animal to animal interactions.
  • Over a 4 to 5 month winter period a well designed, properly constructed and fully maintained slatted floor unit for cattle provides the necessary comfort with minimum distress or injury to the cattle.
  • Escapes/creeps should be provided, if young calves are housed with adults, i.e. suckler cows and calves

Feed Barrier

  • There should be sufficient space for all animals to feed comfortably at the same time.
  • The feed trough should be sufficiently large such that animals have adequate access to food at all times.
  • Avoid any sharp edges or projections on the feed barrier or on the pen divisions which could cause injury to cattle.
  • The feed should be kept within reach of the animal.


  • Body condition score within the range 2.5 to 3.0 for the cow at calving is desirable.
  • Consider choice of bull for ease of calving. This is especially important for heifers.
  • Provide safe calving facilities so as to have minimum stress and risk of injury.
  • For indoor calving a bedded pen should be available.
  • In the case of abnormal or difficult calvings prompt intervention should take place to avoid unnecessary distress or even death to the cow and/or the calf.
  • Assist the calf in obtaining adequate amounts of colostrum within 2 to 4 hours of birth. For calves which will remain with the dam, provide conditions which will promote bonding between cow and calf.
  • Calves under seven days of age, or with a wet navel should not be offered for sale.

Feeding and Management Type Activities

Weaning of Suckled Calves

Weaning of the suckled calf from its dam can be particularly stressful for the calf, which in addition to removal from the dam may be compounded by several other stressors, e.g. change of diet (grass and milk to conserved feed with or without concentrates), change of environment (outdoors to indoors), transport/marketing, de-horning and castration.

  • Calves that are weaned abruptly in the autumn, housed and introduced to silage and concentrates, have a low feed intake initially. All calves should be provided with a concentrate creep feed prior to weaning. While suckled calves may be slow to adapt to creep feeding the stress that normally occurs following weaning will be reduced considerably if calves are consuming 1 kg of creep feed daily prior to weaning.
  • The preferred option is to keep the herd in a properly fenced field with a good grass supply or with silage (or hay) fed and the cows removed gradually (up to one-quarter on any one occasion) to a location away from the calves. As the calves remain in the same herd, with adequate feed supplies, the upset caused is reduced considerably. During this period the concentrate creep can be increased gradually to about 1 kg per calf daily.
  • Where calves are going to be castrated, they must be castrated at least four weeks prior to weaning date, or at least two weeks after the calf has been weaned. It is illegal to castrate an animal over six months of age without veterinary involvement.

The Suckler Welfare Scheme was introduced in 2008 in order to improve the standards of animal welfare and the breeding quality of animals in suckler herds. Suckler farming in Ireland is largely grass based and extensive by nature. Good animal welfare has been an integral part of the suckler industry.

For details of the Suckler Welfare Scheme see: AWRBSTermsandConditions191207.pdf

Weaning Requirements under the Suckler Welfare Scheme

  • The minimum age that a calf can be weaned as part of the Suckler Welfare Scheme is eight weeks of age.

Appropriate weaning procedures
This Measure is comprised of three different actions:

Meal (concentrates) feeding

  • Concentrates must be introduced to calves a minimum of 4 weeks before weaning. The meal shall be of the appropriate quality and standard as required for calves at weaning time. Meal must be fed in a feeder appropriate for calves and allow sufficient room for calves to feed.
  • The daily allowance per animal must be increased over this period until all animals are eating, on average, 1.0 kg/head/day at weaning.
  • Meal feeding must be continued through the weaning process for a minimum period of 2 weeks after weaning.

Graduated weaning

  • Abrupt weaning of all animals at the one time is not permitted.
  • For herds with more than 10 suckler cows, a gradual weaning procedure must be followed when weaning, with the following being the procedures permitted;

At pasture: The herd of cows and calves are retained in a properly fenced field with a good grass supply (or with supplementary forage provided) and with a concentrate creep for the calves. Calves must be weaned in at least two separate groups with each group being removed at a minimum interval of five days. The first group of cows must be removed allowing their calves to stay with the remaining herd. Another method is to separate cows and calves by means of a well-powered electric fence (up to three strands may be needed). After a few days the cows can be taken away to another area. Again the cows must be weaned in at least two separate groups.

Indoors: Calves are housed in a pen adjacent to the cows with access to these cows. Calves must be weaned in at least two separate groups with each group being removed at a minimum interval of five days. The first group of cows must be removed allowing their calves to stay with the remaining herd. Cows for culling and those in poor body condition (e.g. young cows or very old cows) should be weaned first and late calving cows in good body condition weaned towards the end.

  • Date of weaning must be recorded in the Animal Events System.
  • Sales procedure: All animals must have completed weaning a minimum of 2 weeks before they can be sold, or transferred from the herd.
  • Following weaning it is essential that factors resulting in stress are kept to a minimum. Practices such as dehorning or castration should not be carried out in the four week period before or after weaning. Similarly, abrupt weaning, immediate sale and transport will lead to undue stress which could predispose to respiratory problems.

Movement of Animals

  • At all times animals should be treated and handled in such a manner as to avoid injury and stress. The use of goads or electrical prodders is undesirable.
  • The movement of animals from one paddock to another or to penning facilities should be done without recourse to excessive force, i.e. beating the animals or having an untrained aggressive dog which causes the animals to panic should be avoided.
  • At the time of movement check for any abnormal behaviour, lameness, reluctance to move or isolation from the remainder of herd.
  • Have adequate help available to move the animals.
  • Cattle need to see where they are expected to move to, i.e. if going indoors or into a truck make sure that lights are on and corridors are clear.
  • Cattle are fretful of new events and need to be gently handled to allow them to adjust to a new situation.

Pasture Management

The pasture allocation for the animal should be sufficient to meet the animal’s feed requirements.

  • A supply of clean fresh water should be available at all times.
  • The pasture area should be free of hazards which may cause injury to the animal.
  • An adequate supply of good quality pasture for suckler cows in spring and early summer ensures rapid weight recovery, good milk production and good reproductive activity in the cows. Paddock grazing or the use of a buffer area allows better budgeting of the grass available, thereby allowing matching the demand of the animals with grass supply. A flexible approach to grassland management is essential to control within and between year variation in grass growth.
  • Overstocking of a spring calving suckler herd in the autumn has an undesirable effect on calf and cow performance. The calf will be unable to meet its requirements for good growth and the cow will not have gained adequate body reserves at pasture. These body reserves can be utilised effectively in the winter period.
  • Undue delays in weaning on scarce autumn pasture can result in rapid loss of body condition in suckler cows and also greatly increase the risk of grass tetany

Indoor Feed

The indoor feed supply should be such that the animal can readily satisfy its daily appetite.

  • Where concentrates and roots are part of the diet, these should be introduced gradually and sufficient roughage should also be available.
  • The feeds offered indoors should form a balanced diet with respect to protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies of any of the above may result in impaired performance and an increase in susceptibility to disease.

Mineral Supplementation

  • It is good policy to provide balanced mineral-vitamin mixtures to cows pre- and post-calving during the winter months. Magnesium supplements may be needed during the spring and autumn in recently calved cows, and at weaning time.
  • On many farms, where there is a history of mineral deficiency, calves and yearling cattle may need supplementary minerals for optimal health.

Behaviour Problems

  • At housing, cattle of broadly similar age and size should be penned together where possible. This social group should be allowed to develop and reallocation of animals to other pens should be minimised. Once young bulls in feedlots have settled in social groups they should not be reallocated within these groups Sick animals should be segregated from other animals if the sick animal is being compromised by other animals.
  • During the daily inspection(s) of animals, check for any abnormal behaviour. At meal feeding check that all animals have equal desire to feed. Failure by an animal to go to the feed trough may be an early indication of illness or timidness.
  • Ideally, do not mix heifers and steers in the same pen or adjoining pens if possible. A heifer on heat attracts the attention of the steers and the mounting behaviour can result in undue stress to the female and the risk of injury to the animals.

General Management Consideration

  • Facilities must be provided on farms to allow the handling and loading of animals with the minimum of stress and risk of injury to livestock and staff.
  • Paints, preservatives, disinfectants and other chemical compounds must not be stored in the feed stores or near to animals.
  • All electrical installations must be protected and inaccessible to stock.
  • Between batches of animals, buildings should be adequately cleaned such that organic material is removed from surfaces which would come in contact with the next batch of cattle. Where bedding is provided, it must be regularly changed and/or topped up.
  • All animal buildings should have adequate lighting either fixed or portable to ensure that animals can be thoroughly inspected at any time.
  • All stockpersons should consider having an emergency plan to cope with disasters such as flooding or fire or an outlined plan of the feeding/management programme in the event of needing emergency staff to care for the animals at short notice.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

December 2008

© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.