Animal welfare, issue? Beef producers need to remain focused on animal welfare issues their livlihood depends on it
Producers need to continue to address animal welfare issues on their ranches and feedlots to continue to stay one step ahead of animal rights groups, according to the project manager of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association U.S. beef sustainability project. Dr. Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson traveled across Nebraska last week as part of a conference on Animal Welfare and Current Industry Issues for Livestock Producers.
Since animal welfare has become a major issue affecting the cattle industry, producers have become vigilant about the issues, Stackhouse-Lawson explained. “We need to look at the state of the economy and make positive changes for our industry. We can always do a better job in cattle production,” she added.
Consumers and beef producers have three things in common – they want healthy cattle, healthy people and a healthy planet. There are many issues that affect these three things, she said, and most of them are interrelated. “Many of the things we can do to make animal welfare better also improves food safety and environmental stewardship,” she stated.
Stackhouse-Lawson said producers need to tell their story, and in the last 10 years they have started to do a better job explaining what they do. “Many organizations are advocating animal agriculture,” she said. “Some organizations are out there trying to tell our story. We need to get to a point where consumers turn to the beef industry to answer questions about animal welfare.”
Making changes in such a large industry doesn’t come overnight. “Do you remember how we all used to give shots in the rump, but now it is common practice to give shots in the neck?” she asked the group. “It took time, but we were able to change the behavior of producers in order to improve food safety,” she explained.
The industry needs to focus now on defining normal, in order to change the processes currently in place. Standard operating procedures (SOP) also need to be established to show the world that company has done a good job training their workers and developing animal welfare practices, she explained. “Feedlots are probably under the most pressure from animal advocacy groups right now. They need to be able to document training of the individuals working on their operation according to their SOP. That way, if a bad actor pops up, they can show they have properly trained their workers.”
There are six areas of concern regarding beef cattle welfare: preconditioning, environmental stress, cattle handling, transportation condition, painful procedures, and chronic animal removal.
“As producers, we need to do a better job preconditioning cattle to get them ready for transport,” Stackhouse-Lawson explained. “Producers also need to make sure the cattle are healthy before they transport them.” Bull calves need to be castrated younger, and calves should be dehorned at a young age. “There is no reason we should ever see seven to eight month-old bull calves entering a feedlot, and banding horns on feedlot cattle is a real setback to feedlot performance.”
Cattle producers also need to be more aware of proper handling of chronic animals. “We need to develop more humane methods of euthanasia of animals,” she explained. “We don’t want to see older cows going down on an operation. Producers need to do a better job culling their animals sooner,” she added.
Education is key
To teach producers and feedlot owners about proper handling of animals, they have to be willing to learn and have an open mind, Stackhouse-Lawson said. “Proper training is important not only for the owner or producer, but the rest of the family involved in the operation and all the employees,” she said. “Many operations also rely on Spanish-speaking employees, and those people need proper training, as well.”
Producers should start with the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program and the animal care training program. Through these programs, producers and their employees can learn beef quality assurance, cattle handling, transportation, preconditioning and weaning methods, timing to market of culled animals, and pain control. The animal care training program can be accessed 24-hours a day on the internet at: www. animalcaretraining.org.
Through this program, producers can educate their employees about what their job is and why it is important that they do a good job. “It improves awareness on the farm, and can actually reduce turnover,” she explained. “It is important to find ways to keep people around that do a good job.”
“Some of the training is a defense mechanism against the bad actors that have been caught on video treating animals inhumanely,” she continued. “We need to stop doing dumb things on our operations. Remember – Don’t do anything at your facility that you wouldn’t want videoed.”
Evaluations of the animal care training program have been successful, she continued. “It is important to get the message across again and again, and in the same way each time. Sometimes, it takes five to six times before our brain absorbs that information. It is just how our brain works,” she said. In one instance, Spanish-speaking workers at a feedlot were given an exam before and after animal welfare training. Over 27 percent more of the employees had an increased awareness of animal welfare after the training, she said.
Feedyards are also offered a beef quality assessment where a veterinarian or other qualified individual can evaluate working facilities and determine how well they reduce the stress of cattle. They also evaluate the feeding schedule, space, water troughs and feedbunks. The assessment, which takes about two and a half hours to complete, can show owners if their employees are doing their job, and in what areas they need to improve. “We had one feedlot owner who even started doing an assessment on his own once a month,” she said. “It helped him see where changes needed to be made.”