A number of recent undercover videos chronicling apparent abuse by workers of animals on dairies and pig farms have received widespread public play. Such sensational videos are very instrumental in forming public perceptions regarding the treatment and handling of livestock in the U.S.
Much of the public is not aware that in the beef industry, however, many feedlots have greatly improved their handling of animals during processing in the squeeze chute. In fact, a recent Colorado State University (CSU) survey shows that the majority of feedlots are adhering to the industry’s Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines when handling cattle in squeeze chutes. BQA is a national program that provides guidelines for beef cattle production.
The survey was conducted in 28 feedlots in Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. The size of the yards ranged from one-time capacities of 5,000 head to more than 100,000 head. At each feedlot, around 100 head of cattle were observed during routine vaccinating, implanting, and ear tagging.
The CSU researchers found that use of electric prods has fallen greatly. Temple Grandin, CSU professor of animal science, says she can remember a few decades ago when an electric prod was the primary driving tool of cattle in feedyards and was used on almost all the cattle. The latest research found that the average percentage of cattle moved with an electric prod was just 5.5%, which is well under the BQA threshold of 10%. The percentage of cattle moved with an electric prod (in any given cattle handling event) ranged from 0% to 45%. Only two yards had an overall electric prod score over 10%.
Per BQA guidelines, vocalization (moos and bellows) was scored when the animal was captured in the squeeze chute before procedures, such as ear tagging, were initiated. Each animal was scored as either silent or vocalizing. The average percentage of vocalizing cattle was 1.4%, which is well below the BQA limit of 5%. The scores ranged from 0% to 5.1%.
The percentage of cattle falling (the body touches the ground) after exiting the squeeze chute was within the BQA limit of 2% or less in all the yards. The average falling score was 0.8%. At many feedyards, the installation of woven rubber tire mats on the floor in front of the squeeze chute has helped to reduce falls by providing better traction for the cattle as they exit the chute.
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Quieter, calmer handling practices that reduce cattle agitation and excitement are another factor that may have reduced falls. The percentage of cattle that stumbled (a knee contacting the ground after exiting) was also within the BQA guideline of 10% in 86% of the yards surveyed. The average was 6.7% with a range of 0% to 28%.
The BQA guidelines combine the measurements of running and jumping during exiting from the squeeze chute. The best feedyards had 0% runs and jumps. The average was 12.8%, and the worst yard was 16%. When running was tabulated alone, the average was 30.7% of the cattle with a range of 2% to 75%. The average is slightly over a target exit running score of 25%. View these criteria at www.grandin.com.
Areas that need improvement
While this survey found a great deal of positive results to report, it’s also critical to report any negative findings. Cattle that are miscaught in the headgate is still a problem area. The BQA guideline specifies that all cattle that are miscaught must be readjusted so that the animal is in the correct position for processing tasks. A missed catch was scored if the headgate was closed across the animal’s jaw or leg. Unfortunately, 60% of the miscaught cattle monitored in the survey were not readjusted in the chute.
At this time, the BQA guideline provides no threshold for the average percentage of missed catches. CSU research found the 28 surveyed feedyards averaged miscatches on 2.2% of cattle processed, with a range of 0% to 16%. Two percent may be a good figure for BQA to adopt as a threshold for missed catches. It is important to reduce miscatches because animals are more likely to get injured when they are miscaught.
Unfortunately, there was one feedlot where a member of the contract processing crew severely abused cattle by yanking out (rather than cutting out) eartags, which resulted in injured ears. If this behavior had been captured with a cell phone camera and put on YouTube, it would have been a black eye for the whole industry.
The other 96% of the yards had good employee behavior in the processing chute. This survey did not include observations of truck loading or unloading.
Researchers’ discussions with feedlot managers indicated an increased awareness of best handling practices, such as moving smaller groups of cattle and not overloading the crowd pen. Yelling at cattle has also been reduced, and it was witnessed at only one yard. All of the industry’s emphasis on low-stress handling apparently has begun to make real improvements.
Careful, low-stress handling does require more effort. To move small groups of cattle requires more walking, which can tempt some fatigued workers to move larger groups of cattle. Maintaining high standards during cattle handling requires managers who are committed to good handling, and an awareness of the importance of avoiding fatigue in the employees handling cattle.
General tips for good handling
- Move small groups of animals.
- Do not overcrowd the crowd pen – fill it only half full.
- Handlers should understand the basic concepts of flight zone and point of balance.
- Facilities must have non-slip flooring.
- Keep animals calm. Calm and quiet animals move more easily.
Ruth Woiwode is a graduate student and Temple Grandin is a professor in the Colorado State University Department of Animal Science.
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