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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Stress: Are Hauling and Livestock Markets More Stressful than Packing Plants?

Recently a post yielded some questions that couldn’t be answered in a short space so I’ll take the time here.

Anne Morrison wrote, “I recently watched a docudrama on the life and works of Temple Grandin. It seems to me that because of her work in slaughter plants, other experiences for cattle, like hauling and regular livestock markets, are ironically more stressful to the cow than the slaughtering process itself. Thoughts? However, it seems to me that most animals have an instinct to preserve their own lives—hence the flight response that we see in most types of livestock. Even if they perceive threats inaccurately (horses spooking at plastic bags—surely they don’t think THAT is going to kill them, really?), it appears that they do have a sense of fear (as you pointed out as well), and is fear not meant to keep us safe? I’m interested to hear your thoughts further on the matter. All of this, of course, coming from a non-vegetarian… :)”

The movie about Temple Grandin was inspiring and helped to share her experience with people who didn’t understand her gift or in my mind how cattle behave. Side note: these were cowboys who did not have the benefit of hindsight like I do, so I do not hold any grudges against them for not following a young autistic girl. To their credit most of those people and the industry have changed as that girl has shown herself to be correct.

I think when we look at stress in cattle; we have to look at individual operations rather than looking at specific sectors. Ten years ago, packing plants had more monetary resources and had people like Temple to design their facilities so they had an edge in design for humane handling. But progressive producers, feedyards and livestock markets have been quick to pick these methods up, to the point where entities must be compared to one another rather than being compared industry to industry. Last summer, I saw a system at the World Livestock Auctioneer Championships in Greenville, SC that rivaled any other system, feedlot or packing plant. Cattle moved calmly through the ring with little aid of humans, other than opening gates.

From the background of someone who grew up in a livestock market, I can understand Anne’s point. People are more involved in a livestock market or hauling and have more opportunity to cause stress. It all has to do with how cattle are handled and how cattle are loaded. Even in my short years, I have seen a dramatic change in the handling of cattle. More alleys are circular leading to loading or working chutes (allowing cattle to follow the curve as they want to do); more people are trained to handle cattle in a low stress situation than ever before. Knowledge is power, and information is flowing down the beef chain at record pace. Though some operations struggle with unskilled, uneducated labor that would rather beat cattle than move easy, I think that is moving to a smaller and smaller percentage.

The slaughter process is designed to be very low stress and a lot of research, time and money has gone into that portion of production. It has now moved all the way to the producer and they are rapidly changing their methods and systems to fit these systems.

As far as fear is concerned, I think that animals have a hard time distinguishing the levels of fear that they experience. Whether it is a plastic bag or my hand, an unaccustomed animal will perceive both as a threat and be afraid at variant levels based on their own experience. Again most animals don’t understand death so everything is rated on an individual fear scale somewhat like humans (some people are terrified to fly and I do it every day.) Fear is meant to keep these animals from harm but it works against them and put them in situations where they can be injured.

The fear is also something that must be overcome to handle or train them. For instance, Curt Pate, a renowned low stress handler and instructor,  recommends that cattle be trained to move in the open and through an alley system before they are worked to help with comprehension and fear. Those of us that halter break cattle or horses know that it is best for the animal to have a good experience when breaking by only pushing their limits slightly day by day. Small steps win the race in this case.

Thanks to Anne for her questions. I hope I was able to answer them. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me know.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Your Burrito with a Side of Deceit

Some of you might have recently been exposed to Chipotle’s two minute commercial entitled “Back to the Start” featuring Willie Nelson singing “The Scientist” when it played during the Grammys last week. I could address the fallacy involved in the symbolism that is supposed to represent modern day agriculture as a factory, how infeasible it would be to try to produce enough food for the world if we used the practices they seem to endorse or the simple facts of humane handling of livestock, but I’ll save that for another time. I do want to share with you an experience I was privileged to have this past summer involving Chipotle.

Last July, I had the opportunity to tour a large processing facility with a small group of ranchers that raise all-natural Global Animal Partnership (GAP) approved cattle that are processed at that plant. Once we got there we met a VP of procurement from Chipotle that would be touring the facility with us. As we went around the facility I stayed close, asked questions and listened to his questions of the plant managers. While touring the facility, he was mainly focused on traceability from the live animal to box. The handling facilities impressed us all including him. I know the cattle that were qualifying for the all-natural label going through that plant were not fed in the environment shown in the commercial and that did not seem to matter.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedlots that I have seen that are shipping to that facility are first class and they and their producers use the best handling practices available. They are feedlots in the Midwest and the cattle and beef have to be shipped the same as any other beef. They are the type of feedlots that Chipotle seems to be campaigning against in their commercial.

To quote Chipotle’s website, “When we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards. We’ve put a lot of work into poking, prodding, convincing, and occasionally applying guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet our naturally raised standards.”

For Chipotle to imply that their cattle are grass-fed or their beef producers changed their practices because they had an ethical problem with modern production is simply false. I understand that they display dairy cattle in the commercial but most of the public don’t know the difference. All-natural cattle are raised like most of the animals in the country with the only exception that they don’t receive antibiotics or growth promotants, which is a growing niche that is sold throughout the country and internationally. It should be noted both the antibiotics and growth promotants that are used in production are FDA approved, tested and used within the guidelines set out by both the USDA and the FDA to unsure that they are safe.

Some producers have never used implants and they produce their cattle naturally because that is what fits their environment and their cattle’s genetics. Some of these people raise natural for the premium that exists. Simply put they didn’t have to “apply guilt” to ranchers but offer a premium which is what they did. I’m not sure if Chipotle only buys GAP approved cattle but if they do people should understand that most progressive operations use the practices set forth in those guidelines, and there is a large premium for getting approved.

I can understand Chipotle’s desire to set themselves apart but to do it by demonizing the entire livestock industry is completely unreasonable. The best thing we can do as farmers is display our operations to the public every chance we get. And to vote with our dollars. I for one will not be returning to Chipotle again. Qdoba serves the same product minus the deceit.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Do cattle understand death?

Recently, I was talking to a beautiful girl in a bar and after we had gone through the normal, “Are you a real cowboy?” conversation, she made an interesting comment. She told me that she hasn’t been able to feel good about eating beef since she went by a large processing plant in South Dakota. So I asked her what made that such a traumatic experience. She stated that she could see all the cattle behind the plant and they were all screaming because they could smell the blood. “They were all terrified that they were going to die.”

Well, that brought up some interesting points. Do cattle understand their mortality? Are they afraid of the smell of blood? Are cattle terrified when they get to a processing plant? For those of us that are around cattle on a day-to-day basis, we understand that the answers to those questions are no, probably not, and hopefully not.

I’ve been raised around livestock my entire life. My first real memory is helping my mom pull lambs at three years old. In my experience, I’ve never seen an animal that seemed to understand that their life ends. Animals are lucky enough to live in the moment. They have no worries. They don’t worry if they are going to have enough food or water for tomorrow, if they are going to get sick, if their mortgage is due, if they are going to die. I’ve seen cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys, and horses repeatedly put themselves into situations that will put them into harm’s way or do things that could cause their deaths, and they seemed to have no understanding of the danger of what they were doing. I’ve seen cows nuzzle their calves to death, and continue butting them after they are dead, then forget them not two days later. It’s sad but it’s true. They just don’t seem to understand.

Now that is not to say that they don’t have fears. The fear of pain, the fear of being alone and the fear of the unknown are the main fears that we seen in livestock. These fears are the reasons that we handle animals using the techniques that we do and part of the reason that they can sometimes do illogical things that might hurt themselves or people.

The idea that cattle are afraid of the smell of blood is interesting. I don’t think cattle would have any idea what blood smells like or if they do they would have no understanding that it comes from them. They might be afraid because it is an unknown smell. But cattle have consumed blood meal for decades and they don’t seem to be afraid of it. Processing plants are very clean and though cattle have a keener sense of smell then I do, I could not smell blood except on the kill floor where cattle are bled out.

For those of you who haven’t been to a large facility, let me describe it for you from a steer’s eye view. When cattle are unloaded they come down an alley that has what I would call a “touch-less cow wash”. There are water nozzles that spray off every part of the animal to clean off as much mud and manure as possible. (Dirt and bacteria is the biggest enemy of a processing plant so as you go through you see that everything is very clean.) They go through a scale and then into a pen. The pens are concrete floored and clean with water in every pen. (The yard at most plants is washed at least twice daily.) If they stay overnight there is feed. All of the alleys and pens are built to guide cattle without people having to force them. After waiting in the pen, cattle are moved up wide alleys toward the plant. The people moving the cattle are quiet and at the last facility I was at have small sticks with plastic grocery bags attached to the ends.

As they move up the alleys, walls are solid and curved. Cattle naturally follow the curves and the alleys narrow until cattle directly in line. A conveyor belt moves up between the animals legs and they are lifted off their feet and moved to the stun box. Cattle come through the box and as their heads pop out, they are stunned with a captive bolt gun. This process is supervised by USDA veterinarians throughout, especially the stunning process. Most plants also have closed circuit video recording and are reviewed by third parties like Temple Grandin for animal welfare.

Animals in the pens do tend to vocalize more then what would be considered normal, but that is standard for cattle moved to a new place with new cattle around them. It is like people vocalizing more at a bar or sporting event. If cattle are nervous or stressed at slaughter, then they produce meat which is undesirable so every care is taken for them to be calm as they move into the plant. Most cattle move smoothly, following the curves and the cattle in front of them into the stun box. This is done for the safety of the cattle and people.

All I know is that as a producer, I hope that in all we do cattle are comfortable, calm, and feel safe when we care for them, when we handle them, and when we slaughter them. I hope that they can understand that we care even if some people don’t.

I explained all of this to the young lady and… that’s a story for another time and place.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Taking the Mystery Out of Production

Murphy Brown: Taking the Mystery Out of Pork Production

Hopefully you clicked the link. It goes to a number of videos that follow the process of pork production and the people behind it. I think it would be a benefit to the beef industry if we could figure out a way to do something similar. The public is several generations from the farm and most of their information comes from the media and people like Wayne Pacelle.

The best way to educate them is for them to see the ranches and ranches, feedlot and feedlot managers and maybe even the packing plants. If they get to meet the people and see through the barn door, they will have a better understanding of the people, animals and the process behind the food on their plate.

Until we get those done, no reason we can’t share the story. I’ll keep preaching the good word and I hope you do too.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Uniformity in the Beef Industry

At the Ft. Worth Stock Show this past weekend, Andy Peterson of Limousin Live brought to my attention the issue of uniformity in the beef industry that came to him as he read an earlier post on the National Western. His comment is below.

Food for your (and mine) rumination: why is there the desire to create the same product in the beef industry? Wine isn’t very homogeneous yet is quite profitable. Does uniformity of a product automatically equate to profit?

His point is well taken and I can agree to a point. The industry is far too complex for one particular animal to be the ideal in all environments. The differences in environment account for a large part of variation. Places like South Dakota and Iowa can sustain larger framed cattle because of the availability of high quality feedstuffs. Cattle have to be good grass converters and be extremely sound to live in the high deserts of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, where they stock a cow to about 50 acres.  Growing up in the fescue country of Central Virginia, we always realized that we could send cattle to about anywhere because they could convert low quality forage. And some cattle couldn’t handle that forage environment.

Chicken and pork have uniformity of product because they are raised in a controlled environment and biologically don’t have much variation in taste due to intramuscular fat deposits. Cattle have to live a majority of their lives on forage and are typically finished in feed yards in order to have add uniformity to the beef product and reduce overhead costs.

Uniformity does pay on an individual basis if all your calves fit a particular mold so that they can be marketed in larger groups, fed the same, and have the same end point. But where I really disagree is in the meat case.

Since beef is the highest priced protein on the block (the wine to chicken and pork’s Pabst Blue Ribbon), when Susie Q Homemaker buys steaks at the supermarket she wants to know that they will eat well. Nothing is worse than paying $20 for a restaurant steak and having to chew it like it is boot leather. Wal-Mart recently changed their entire meat case over to Choice quality grade product for this reason. It had a very dramatic effect on the Choice-Select spread, though that is a thought for another day.

There are a large number of different beef products for consumers. Some value lean beef over Choice or Prime. Some prefer all-natural. Others like to know how it is raised, grass-fed, meadow-raised, hormone-free, ethically handled. So there is some flexibility in the products that the industry can sell into niches.

But most consumers just want a healthy safe affordable product. So as a whole and especially at export markets, quality is still king. A packing executive shared with NALF recently that in his own opinion, he would like to see the US slaughter be 25% Prime, because he could sell it. That might not be feasible from a production stand point but it is what his consumer wants.

Please don’t misunderstand. The US cowherd is diverse and the product that the commercial industry wants from the seedstock sector is too. There are still a large number of small framed lighter muscled British based herds out there that could use a shot of hybrid vigor from the Continental breeds. And a large number of Brahman influenced herds that could use some British influence.

There is no one breed or one cross that is not the perfect recipe for the industry. But I think that there is a kind of cattle in all breeds that we can all agree will work and make the beef required by consumers. Sound, functional cattle with quality muscling and fleshing ability never go out of style. That kind of cattle coupled with the right set of genetic evaluation numbers (EPDs, genetic markers, etc.) will be the kind to take us into the next century and will make sure my children have a chance to raise cattle.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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