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

24 Feb

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.


Posted by on February 24, 2012 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Stress: Are Hauling and Livestock Markets More Stressful than Packing Plants?

  1. Farm the Start

    February 26, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    I agree, fear is relatively individual in cattle, like you say about the plastic bag or a hand, it depends on the animal and their experiences. Cattle who grew up on ranches of thousands of acres, who rarely saw a person unless it was on horseback, can be terrified to see a walking person at the feedlot. Sometimes cattle are more fearful of horses than people on foot. In extreme cases, the yard will request a cowboy to fill in for a doctor to avoid overstressing an animal if they are more comfortable moving around a horse than a 2-legged person. 🙂 It would be helpful to feedlot cattle to see a few people in their younger age, to prevent complete terror when they encounter humans (sometimes for the 2nd time EVER) on the feedyard.

  2. Leon Leishman

    February 28, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Docility scores have allowed Limousin Breeders to select animals of reduced fear. This started in 1990 and 20 years later Limousin can be less stressed IF breeders select for improved per genetics, of course adverse imprinting can reduce the positive improvements made with genetics.

  3. chluke

    February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    All the focus has been on the processing facilities, and I think that’s where most of the progress has been made. We’re fortunate that, in most cases, “humane” and “efficient” handling are effectively the same thing.
    But here on the east coast, so many of our facilities, particularly our sale facilities, were designed and built 75 years ago, and work as about as efficiently as you’d imagine.
    I’m not about to lay any blame on any of the handlers, especially at the sale barns – these guys get the crap knocked out of them on a daily basis. The first animal through the gate might be a 16-year-old cull cow who should have been shot in the field, followed by somebody’s one-eyed Brahma-Longhorn cross, then a pen of three 500lb. Holstein bull-calf “babies”.
    And when you put these three classes of animals on the same truck, things don’t improve much, no matter how competent the driver is, and how up-to-date his equipment is.
    Of course I’ve seen plenty of guys who are rough on their own cattle. And no matter how much improvement you make at the end of the whole process, if we screw things up going in, they’re not going to get any better coming out.


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