Tag Archives: animal welfare

Ranchers and Livestock: A Complex Relationship

As I travel and talk to the general public, I find that a grand majority of them, from omnivore to vegan, are concerned about the welfare of livestock. They care deeply about the way livestock are treated and they are appalled by the videos of abuse that are put out by various animal rights groups. They like to tell me about their dog, cat, or maybe even their horse and how they couldn’t bear the thought of those animals being eaten.They wonder how ranchers feel about these animals and their welfare. Do we really care?

This is always a difficult discussion to have with folks since the relationship a rancher has to his livestock is very complex and most of the public has little experience with animals to relate to a rancher. In addition, the videos they see and stories they hear are not an accurate representation of the industry. So what I typically do is tell my story and what livestock have meant to me.

For me, caring for livestock was never a question. It was all that I’ve ever known. One of my first clear memories is helping my mother pull lambs at 2 AM when I was three or four. I started showing lambs at four with my ewe lamb named Pirate, and I showed my first market lamb at six. I got my first pony about the same age and a horse soon after. We’ve always had cattle and I was literally raised in a barn (a sale barn to be exact). From that age, I had chores and wasn’t allowed to have dinner until my animals had been fed.

Pirate and I at my first show

In my house, we raised our own meat. So from a young age, I was feeding the animals that would end up on the dinner table. It was just normal. All the animals were cared for and treated with respect no matter their end point. Plus, who wants to eat something that has been mistreated?

Most of what I read on this topic from agriculture folks goes into the time taken caring for the health and welfare of livestock, the scientific reasons that we use one system over another or the calling that ranchers feel in their hearts to take care of livestock. These are all true and I could give you hundreds of stories about the joys of saving animals on the verge of death, the stress of always worrying about their well being and the heart break of seeing them go. But I think what exemplifies the story of a rancher’s relationship with an animal, is the story of my Dad and Blackstrap.

An old cowboy once told me that cowboys get one good horse, one good dog, and one good woman in their lives (if they are lucky). Snapper was Dad’s dog. My mother is the woman. Blackstrap was his horse.

Snapper, Dad’s dog and my guardian

Dad got Blackstrap when he was twelve and they grew up together. Blackstrap was a big, stout Quarterhorse gelding that was basically jet black. Dad raised him and broke him to be a cow horse.  I heard stories about the things this horse did from the time I could walk. I even rode Blackstrap with Dad before I could walk. Not that he was without his faults, but Dad seemed to love him even more for those. Dad rode other horses later, but they were always compared to Blackstrap and none of them could ever measure up.

When I was about six, Blackstrap developed colic while on some spring pasture. After trying all he could, Dad realized Blackstrap was going to die. My father is a practical man. He knew dying of colic wasn’t going to be pleasant, so Blackstrap needed to be euthanized. If there is one thing Dad can’t stand, it is to watch an animal suffer. So we loaded Blackstrap up and took him to the horse slaughter plant nearby (this being 1992 and horse slaughter still being legal). I can still vividly remember Dad walking him across the scales and up to the floor himself. It was the first time I saw him cry.

At six, I knew Blackstrap was going to be put down but not that we were at a slaughter plant. Once I grew up and figured it out, I asked Dad, why take him there? His response has always stuck with me. He said that Blackstrap was always a horse with a purpose. Those folks would do the most humane and professional job euthanizing him, and Blackstrap would still have a purpose.

I guess the whole discussion comes down to your belief system. I believe cattle were put on this earth for us to use and cowboys were put on this earth to take care of the cows. Thus, we tend to our animals using the best animal husbandry we can.  We know their overall purpose is to feed people, but they aren’t treated like hamburger on a day-to-day basis. It is this overall purpose that drives us to take care of them.

There is pride and honor in caring for animals that will feed hungry people. It’s a calling and one that ranchers take seriously. It is a purpose that drives us through days of mud and blood, rain and snow, sweat and tears. The relationship and obligation that a rancher feels for his animals is one that cannot be expressed, it must be felt. It’s something that can only be seen in the lines and wrinkles of a rancher’s face.

Dad thought I should move away from agriculture and be an engineer. For a while I tried, but it never felt like my purpose in life. I believe my purpose is to help share with the public that ranchers can and do care about livestock all the way from conception to consumption. Pasture to the plate, these animals mean the world to ranchers.


Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Are Cattle Genetically Modified?

I was confronted with this question on a flight last summer. I was talking about the beef industry and what I do with a fellow passenger when she began asking if we genetically modify cattle “like corn and soybeans.” It’s an interesting question and one I was not sure how to answer but that day was a good time to try and I have pondered on it since. The answer would depend on your definition of genetically modified and whether or not you believe that is a bad thing.

Now I won’t pretend to be intelligent enough to understand the process of the genetic modification in crops. From my research, some of the first modifications were done of tomatoes to keep them from softening as they ripen which was approved by the FDA in 1994. Corn, soybeans and other crops have been modified to be Roundup® Ready, allowing farmers to kill weeds without harming their crops. Both of these things allow for a more desirable product for consumers and for more production with better production practices. Both are positives for the industry and consumers.

If you place selective breeding under the umbrella of genetic modification, I would say that we have genetically modified cattle and it is not a new thing. The hundreds of breeds of cattle, from Lowlines to Angus to Nelores, that roam the world’s pastures today and since they have been domesticated are a product of that. Even today, we select breeding stock out of populations to enhance production. Whether it is using a Bos indicus for added heat tolerance and parasite resistance, or a Limousin for added muscle and feed efficiency, the industry has bred cattle to adapt to different environments, enhance productivity and fill the ever-changing consumer needs and desires.

Take the period of 1970 through the 1980s, when consumers desired a leaner product and the industry needed more production per head. Performance, muscle and frame size became the selection criteria for a majority of the industry. We changed cattle from a frame score 4 baby beef to a frame score 7.5 with more muscle and less fat. Today, the industry has found a more manageable frame size to go along with increased performance.

These changes were, and currently are, supplemented with technologies like artificial insemination and embryo transfer that give producers the opportunity to multiply the best genetics possible at a level and for a value never before seen. Breeders sample the best genetics available for the cost of a straw of semen or the value of a frozen embryo. EPDs also became available, giving producers a selection tool that applied across the entire breed population.

Cloning is also a technology that has become available to the industry and is maybe the most controversial. The way I look at it and the way I see it being used in the industry is mostly as an insurance policy for genetically superior, high value animals that might not survive long enough to meet demands for their genetics. Some AI sires that haven’t produced enough semen to meet demands are cloned along with some donor cows. Steers that show exemplary performance characteristics have been cloned and their genetics used. But this technology is not very prevalent due to the cost and the fact that the genetic rate of change in the industry tends to dictate that by the time a clone is made, their genetic superiority has been lost. Most cloning is done in the show steer industry where the target remains more constant.

The newest technology, which probably holds the most promise in today’s industry, is genomics. By genotyping animals and finding markers that are correlated to particular traits that are hard or expensive to measure can yield accelerated and more precise selection. Research is currently underway for a number of these traits of economic importance namely feed efficiency, fertility and disease resistance.

Feed efficiency takes a large data collection system and is hard to quantify in an EPD due to small sample size and difficulty of definition. With genomic markers we can select individuals without having to go through the phenotypic test. Genomic markers indicating fertility would help enhance replacement heifer selection, and reduce the cost of developing heifers that have decreased genetic predisposition for fertility. Since this is the number one reason for culling in the national cow herd, it could greatly enhance productivity just by increasing the percent national calf crop by 1%. Disease resistance, bovine respiratory disease in particular, could decrease calf crop and feedlot mortality and morbidity, saving millions of dollars in pharmaceuticals and improve animal health and well-being.

This was more information than the lady on my flight really wanted to know, and maybe more than you wanted. But her main worry was whether the genetic modifications were safe. The answer was definitely. None of these technologies change the nature of beef but rather the quality and quantity. By improving efficiency through selection, the industry has been able to produce more and healthier cattle that produce more beef per animal in less time. Thus increasing production and decreasing greenhouse emissions while providing a safe product to the consumer.

Don’t forget that even though Yahoo! might not think much of a degree in agriculture, a lot of us did. A majority of agriculturalists have a college education. They are not only educated. They are driven. They stay up-to-date on technology and are always looking to make more with less, and do better with what they have, in order to provide the world with full bellies.

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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