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Don’t Oversimplify the Value of Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding has been shown by numerous research studies to enhance advantages in growth, longevity and maternal efficiency over straightbred cattle due to the effect of heterosis and has been popular among commercial cattlemen since the 1960s. With the growth of the Angus breed and the success of their marketing program, the term “Angus” has taken on a meaning synonymous with quality with consumers. This fact has changed the commercial landscape with a majority of the American cowherd being Angus-influenced and has led some to theorize that crossbreeding is no longer needed and market demands can be met with just one breed.

At the 2011 North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE), a white paper entitled, “Crossbreeding: A free lunch but at what cost,” published by Dr. Nevil Speer of Western Kentucky University was presented as part of the American Angus Association’s events. Certified Angus Beef and the American Angus Association have since published articles in industry publications throughout the national pertaining to the paper and have even made an illustrated breakdown of the paper for distribution.

 The paper takes issue with the simplistic perspective that extra pounds through heterosis automatically equals a more profitable bottom line. It does this by comparing straight breeding Angus genetics to a “haphazard implementation of crossbreeding.” In this general comparison selecting for Angus bulls that are uniform and excel in traits that the industry desires is more profitable than selecting for a crossbreeding system whose only focus is increased weaning weight. 

I grew up in the Angus breed and still own Angus cattle but to draw a conclusion that crossbreeding is not a viable and profitable breeding plan based on this general comparison is simply not accurate. The beef industry is far too complex and diversified in environment, production and marketing systems to find that one breed or breeding plan is the only profitable solution. I believe that Dr. Speer understands this since his statement was aiming to “serve as a meaningful foundation for a deeper, more comprehensive discussion about crossbreeding within the beef industry.” But I also see far too many people are skipping that discussion and move to the simplistic conclusion that crossbreeding holds no value.

The key to the entire system is that breeding must be achieved in a programmed manner using seedstock that are appropriate for the situation. Profit minded cattlemen are aware of the advantages of using outcross genetics and breeds to advance their programs. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have seen the increase in value for bulls in major Continental breeds in the past year. Growth in natural and NHTC programs are also a driver of a return to crossbreeding since performance, efficiency and yield provided by crossbreeding are needed to maintain profitability when implants, beta agonists and ionophores are removed.

 Currently a majority of the US cow herd is Angus based or at least British influenced. Since the early 1990s, Hereford and Angus have made strides in the area of performance, achieving weaning and yearling weights equal to the Continental breeds, and maintained their advantage in marbling characteristics (USMARC GPE Cycle VII). However, these breeds still face problems in the commercial sector. British breeds tend to be early maturing with excess subcutaneous fat, high feed conversion rates and low dressing percentages. This is one of the major drivers for the extensive use of implants and beta agonists in commercial feedyards. This is also why we are seeing a demand from the feeding and processing sectors for designed hybrid feeder cattle to overcome these challenges. For example this summer, Lim-FlexÒ feeder cattle from Sierra Valley Ranch in California and Big Meadows Ranch in Colorado sold at the top of their weight classes at the Superior Livestock Auctions in Winnemucca, NV and Steamboat Springs, CO, respectively.

Tom Brink of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding gave a presentation to the recent Emerging Leaders Academy entitled “What feedyards are looking for in the feeder cattle they buy.” He presented that the industry currently needs steers that will a produce a Choice quality grade carcass that has a Yield Grade less than 3, and to be the most profitable the hot carcass weight needs to be over 850 pounds.  Brink then laid out his breed composition pyramid for the ideal feeder steer which includes a 25 to 50 percent Continental influence to meet these demands.  A majority of these cattle work in premium programs with an Angus label since a bulk of the Limousin, Simmental, and Gelbvieh breeds are black.

Targeted crossbreeding might be the most useful tool that the beef industry has in the future. We are looking at a growing world population that will require 100 percent more food by the year 2050, of which around 70 percent will have to come through efficiency improving technology. A natural phenomenon that yields the improved fertility, performance, carcass value and longevity of heterosis is not something to be tossed away on a whim.

This is the opportunity for seedstock breeders to educate their commercial customers. It is not crossbreeding that is a problem, but rather the fact that a large number of producers have no breeding plan at all and mate cows without a goal or program. Quality pounds on the plate of the consumer are the key and the breed composition to achieve that is based upon the program’s resources as the determining factor. In order for the beef industry to meet the needs of the world’s dinner tables, producers need to look for the best breeding plan to fit various market needs for high quality, efficiently produced pounds and use heterosis to help push the bar forward.

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Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Cowboy Commandments to Air Travel

For those of you that are regular readers, I will warn you that this is not my normal beef industry related post. But more of an open letter to the thousands of people at airports who cause my blood pressure to rise on a regular basis and have threatened my faith in humanity. To the rest of you, I hope you can still enjoy and maybe learn something.

I am frequent flyer at Denver International Airport to the point that airport parking attendants and TSA officers know me by name (with TSA pat downs the way they are, they should probably buy me dinner too). In my trips, there are a lot of people flying that are inexperienced in air travel and it takes a while to get used to the procedures. The most frustrating part for those of us that fly often is that most of these people also completely lack common sense and manners. It is as if all regard for others goes out the window when they step into the airport. They’ve got places to go and the rest of us are in their way.

So for those of you that haven’t flown in a while, the following can serve as a guide through the process. For those that fit into the second category, this guide will stop people in the airport from giving you the evil eye and wishing they still had their toe nail clippers to see if they could be used as a weapon.

1.       Thou shalt be calm and remain that way. Everyone going through the airport is headed somewhere important as well, so don’t think you are more important than they are. The flight personnel are there to help you get on your flight, they will try to help if you give them the time to help. Just relax. If you checked in on time and security is slow that day, they will typically hold the plane for you. It has happened to me more than once. The only person slowing you down is you. If you act anxious and in a hurry in the security line, you are asking for a patented TSA pat down and the rest of us will be glad to see you get one.

2.       Thou shalt be on time and prepared. Like anything else in life, showing up ON TIME is half the battle. I recommend getting to the airport an hour before boarding time (instead of take-off), so you have time to park, ride the shuttle, check bags, get through security, find the gate, grab a bite, etc. The other half is being prepared. Check your flight status and security wait times. If you can check in online, it usually saves time and hassle. Eat something (preferably not Mexican food) before you get there if you don’t want to spend money on overpriced food.

3.       Thou shalt dress thyself and thy children appropriately. I’ve been in airports in 35 states and 3 countries, and the temperature in every single one was between 70-75 degrees F. You don’t need a coat; just put them in the bag. Your belt, jewelry, shoes, cell phones, wallets, etc. all have to go through the screener, so please just put them in your bag when going through security. Save us all a lot of time and hassle. That goes double for your young children. Every time I fly out of Denver, there is some young couple at security with their 3.5 children that they are trying to get wrangled through security. Organization will save major time and headaches, as will slip-on shoes or boots.

4.       Thou shalt pack appropriately. Ladies, this means please don’t try to push that 50 pound bag weight limit. Half of you will be repacking at the check-in because you are two pounds over, and the people behind you won’t be happy. Have your carry-on packed so that you can get your laptops and such that have to go through the scanner easily. Despite the TSA agents at every airport listing off the things to take out before you go through the scanner, I bet a quarter of travelers leave their laptop, camera, toiletry items (aka the stuff they were just telling you about) in the bag.

5.       Thou shalt read the signs. I would swear that a third of America must be illiterate, judging by people in airports. As soon as you enter an airport, there are signs telling you where to go, what to do and how to make things simpler. But despite ten different signs in three different languages saying all shoes must be removed, people keep walking into the metal detector with their shoes on. You can blame Richard Reid, TSA, and the rest of the world or you can read the sign and put your shoes in the tray.

6.       Thou shalt move slowly. In case you might have missed it. We are all riding on the same planes. Being the first one through security and to the gate gets you there at the same time as if you walked slowly, didn’t bump into me, cut me off or step on my foot. So walk at normal speed, keep your head up and watch out for the 69,000 other people flying through DIA today.

7.       Thou shalt not carry-on thy pet. Just because you put your dog in a Tebow jersey, does not mean it should be flying in the airplane. I’m sure “Fluffy” will make it down below with the rest of the luggage where I don’t have to hear him freak out or smell him have an accident. I can deal with most children on airplanes, because they are my own species and typically act fine as long as they have a toy and some gum so their ears pop. Your dog might be a person to you, but unless your blind or he speaks English, he’s just another annoyance for the rest of us.

8.       Thou shalt listen to airport/airline personnel and be polite to them. This is one that will be your biggest benefit. Most airport personnel (ground crew, TSA, flight attendants) like helping people and will guide you through the process making the trip more pleasant if you are polite and follow the rules. If not then you are making their job harder, so you deserve to have a problem. Yelling and cursing them about delays or cancellations has to be one of the stupidest things I see in airports. Though you might be frustrated, being mean isn’t going to get you anywhere, just be polite, explain the situation calmly and you are typically in for some service. If not, you’ll end up in the rat infested hotel on standby for a 10 pm flight two days from never.

9.       Thou shalt not do obnoxious things in flight. Simple things to pass the time on a plane that do not disturb your neighbor: reading, watching movies, listening to music, knitting, sleeping, working on laptop, talking quietly. Things that cause people to contemplate jumping out the emergency exit: having a conversation with someone across the plane, painting your toe nails, loudly eating a packed three course meal on a one hour flight, allowing your child to run around the plane, trying to talk to me about how awesome Jersey Shore is. If you wouldn’t want the person next to you to do it, don’t do it.

10.    Thou shalt not stand directly on top of the baggage claim. You are waiting for your bag. So are the other 300 people that were on the plane. Just step back until you see it then step up and get it. I’m sure you can see it from three feet back. That way the rest of us can get to our baggage without having to step over you and having to risk “accidentally” hitting you in the knee with our bags.

If you follow these simple commandments, your time spent in the airport will be much more pleasant and so will everyone else’s. So fly smart. Be courteous. Travel safe.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 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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What’s in the beef?

I read the following in a recent press release on MeatPoultry.com and I thought I would share.

According to the office of U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY), more than 60 fast-food companies, livestock producers, meat and poultry processors and retailers received a letter from the congresswoman asking for disclosure of the use of antibiotics in the products they sell.

“In the past year alone, we have had more outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella associated with contaminated meat and poultry than any other year, leaving behind a trail of victims that cannot be treated with common antibiotics,” she wrote in the letter sent to fast-food companies.

Companies are asked to respond to the letter by June 15, 2012, providing information about their policy with suppliers regarding antibiotic use; consumer education programs relating to antibiotic use; percentage of meat and poultry supplies that come from animals given antibiotics for therapeutic vs. non-therapeutic reasons; and any planned policy changes regarding the use of antibiotics.

“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Slaughter. “We just want to know, ‘what’s in the beef?’”

Some of you might know Mrs. Slaughter from her 2007 legislation titled The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which aims to limit the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry. In December, she authored an Op-Ed piece for the Huffington Post, “What’s in Your Christmas Ham?”

She is still trying diligently to move this legislation through Congress and is now turning to the media to drum up a public outcry in order to move it. Her theory is that long term feeding of antibiotics to livestock will cause pathogens to develop that are resistant to antibiotics. This would let bacteria experience a non-lethal dose of the antibiotic so they have the ability to adapt. Antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella are generally used as examples. Most research shows this is not reproducible but there are many political forces pushing this agenda.

The simple fact is that there is very little antibiotic feed for growth promotion. Some tetracyclines like aureomycin are used during periods of stress or as a mass medicate to prevent illness for groups in a new environment, but are not fed throughout the feeding process. The large amount of fed antibiotics in USDA or FDA statistics are ionophores (Rumensin and Bovatec) which have some antimicrobial properties but are mainly used to shift the rumen’s volatile fatty acid production to enhance the production of propionic acid. This yields enhanced gains and feed efficiency which is good for the environment with less feed being used to produce beef and less greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the back end of the cattle. Ionophores are not used in human medicine and pose no threat but the industry is in danger of losing them as a tool with Mrs. Slaughter’s legislation.

I can understand the fear and believe that antibiotics like tetracyclines and pencillins should be used judiciously to ensure health of both animal and man. But with broad based legislation, we throw the baby out with the bath water. We reduce producers’ ability to treat animals in a timely manner, prevent infection and improve production efficiency, all for a theory. Scientists are split and no connection between antibiotics used in animals and resistant bacteria has been proven.

Another potential cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria is the prevalence of antibiotic prescriptions in human health care. “So you have a cold? Here have some antibiotics.” The common cold is a virus and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Also, a large group of people don’t complete their cycle of antibiotics. They feel better so they stop taking the pills. This also exposes bacteria to levels of the antibiotic that are non-lethal allowing them to adapt.

To put it simply, we, as beef producers, use these FDA approved products according to label instructions or through extra label instructions from a veterinarian to treat sick animals and to prevent illness in some cases. There is no rampant use of antibiotics in the industry for the simple fact that they are very expensive. Ranchers work in a small margin commodity business that punishes overspending. So the sick are treated, cattle are vaccinated or illness is prevented, in order provide the best health and care for the animal, not to improve gains.

Natural and non-hormone treated cattle programs are becoming more popular with the consumer and more ranchers are buying in for the premiums. I get to work with a number of these ranchers because Limousin work well in these programs. For most, it is doing business as usual with their record keeping and methods being verified by a third party.

All antibiotics have a withdrawal period set forth by FDA to prevent them from being in the system of the animal when slaughtered. Cattle must pass pre-mortem and post-mortem health inspections by USDA veterinarians at processing. Processing plants have plans in place to prevent contamination that were partially described in “Do Cattle Understand Death?” These plans also account for a wash post mortem, time spent in a freezer, cleaning procedures at every juncture and testing of final products for contamination by USDA inspectors before they are shipped.

Most foodborne illness can be accounted for after the cattle have left producers’ hands and by undercooked food. I appreciate a good rare steak, steak tartar or a burger cooked medium but these do come with the risk that any bacteria present, either from the cook’s hands or other contamination, might still be alive.

So what’s in the beef? Delicious protein, iron and fats that contribute to healthy, happy, well-nourished people, all thanks to producers that look out for their animals and the public’s health.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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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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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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