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.