Making beef cattle welfare work

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Cattle welfare is not a new concept in the beef industry. Cattle producers have been practicing welfare for over 100 years. “If we look back on the history of raising cattle, we can easily see that good animal welfare has long been understood,” says Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, Haskell County Animal Hospital LLC, Sublette, Kan. “For instance, in the days of the cattle trails, drovers worked hard to keep the cattle calm and at a slow walk. The reason behind this was simple: stressing the cattle by pushing them fast would cause weight loss, thereby making them weigh less and worth less money. This basic premise still holds true today.”

However, Sjeklocha, who  chairs the Academy of Veterinary Consultants Beef Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee and who started the Animal Stewardship group two years ago, says welfare isn’t just an economic argument. “When we say things such as ‘We must take good care of our livestock, because it would be costly if we didn’t,’ activists like to twist this to insinuate that we are only after the almighty dollar. We are simply saying that we would be foolish to abuse our livestock, because it certainly would not benefit us or the livestock.”

How do we define cattle welfare?

One the problems the cattle industry has is not equating the term “cattle welfare” with good animal husbandry practices. “We have all progressed animal welfare over the last decade,” says Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Beef Cattle Institute, Kansas State University, “but we haven’t kept track of it as animal welfare.” What he means is that we are usually focused on our common cattle measurement tools such as average daily gain, body condition scoring, conception rate, morbidity rate, death loss, etc. which we can put numbers to. 

“When we improve these things it’s a function of improved animal well-being,” Thomson explains. “When we write articles or publish research we don’t say we improved well-being by improving health or the body’s ability to produce tissue. Instead we equate those positive measurements to improving the bottom line.

We could have just as well said ‘this is improvement in animal well-being as evidenced by body condition score or conception rate or a decrease in death loss.’ We need to do a better job of keeping track of these welfare improvements.” Thomson and others are currently working with packers and cattle feeders on developing metrics that can help measure animal welfare on a day-to-day basis.

Thomson notes that 20 years ago veterinarians were doing hundreds of cesarean sections on beef cattle, but now that has dramatically dropped in number. “It goes back to using low birthweight bulls, pelvic measurements and better heifer management — all things that contribute to the bottom line and also improve animal health and well-being.”

Positive changes we’ve made

Though there are still challenges the beef cattle industry faces with welfare concerns, it’s important to note the positive changes in cattle welfare that have occurred and continue to occur and be refined. “The biggest changes I’ve seen have been the creation of the animal welfare culture within our cattle operations, whether feedlot, cow-calf or stocker,” Thomson notes. “There is an acute awareness by all producers about the handling techniques and facility design. I attribute this to the overall awareness of groups such as National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Academy of Veterinary Consultants and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. These groups have made it a front burner issue.”

The result of these organizations’ efforts has been a trickle-down effect to beef cattle veterinarians and cattle operations. “It’s a change in the culture of an operation,” Thomson adds. “Once a feedlot decides animal welfare is important, it has to have buy-in across the facility of everyone to really make it work. That is where I have seen a big change. Once we saw the creation of the animal welfare culture within the operation, welfare has improved.”

Other positive changes include:

  • Handling techniques We have worked to understand our cattle and how they respond to us, Sjeklocha says. “Temple Grandin’s work in applying science to cattle handling and Bud Williams’ work in using cattle responses to our advantage (and theirs) has worked to drastically decrease stress.”
  • Transportation NCBA’s Master Cattle Transporter Guide has provided cattle haulers an excellent set of guidelines to keep cattle safe and stress low while cattle are transported.  Among other issues, it addresses loading, unloading, transport, weather extremes and compromised cattle.
  • Facilities design Grandin and Williams have been major contributors to facilities design. “It is difficult to find a set of facilities today that does not incorporate at least some of the theories or ideas from one of these great thinkers,” Sjeklocha says. “Their designs use the animal’s natural tendencies to reduce stress on the cattle and the worker.”
  • Better health care There is no doubt that we have better tools for disease prevention and treatment than 20 years ago. The advent of antibiotics with longer duration of therapeutic activity has improved treatment success while reducing the number of times a sick animal must be handled. Computers with software specifically designed for animal health management has allowed veterinarians to take an accurate, epidemiological approach to problem solving. “Disease prevention has improved not only from better vaccines, but also by better diagnostic tests such as the Antigen Capture ELISA test for persistent infection of BVD,” Sjeklocha adds. “All of these have improved productivity and animal welfare.”
  • Auditing programs These programs have evolved from a food-safety focus to a broader look at the entire process of food-animal production, including animal welfare. “One of the primary issues we face as producers of food is to comply with the different requirements of multiple audits from the multiple retailers requiring those audits,” Sjeklocha says.  Another problem with audits is finding qualified auditors. The Professional Animal Auditors Certification Organization (PAACO) has been developed to answer this concern. “But even with PAACO, we need to work to make the audits more uniform in content.”

Where we need to improve

Cattle production is an outdoor business, and therefore Mother Nature throws a variety of challenges at cattle operations. The North American Food Animal Wellbeing Commission–Beef did a survey of 20 experts on beef cattle welfare in U.S. and Canada and among the challenges it found was heat stress in feedlot cattle and how to alleviate it. “We also have issues with procedures such as castration and dehorning and mitigating pain,” Thomson says. “I don’t think it‘s a matter of technique as much as it is a matter of timing. The earlier we can castrate, if we can move to disbudding instead of dehorning, it’s not as big of an issue. The problem is getting to those calves at an early enough age.” (See "Measuring Pain in Cattle" case study).

Death loss is another area that needs improvement. “We have the best drugs and vaccines and management practices have improved, but what hasn’t changed dramatically is how cattle are presented for sale to feedyards.” Thomson says. “When you look at the hierarchy of animal welfare, the biggest breach we can have is death. When you look at the No. 1 cause of death in cattle, it’s bovine respiratory disease (BRD). My logic is to start at that point. What are the major contributors to BRD? In my opinion, one of them is mismanaged cattle presented for sale.”

The sale of unthrifty or chronically ill animals is a black eye on the cattle industry, says Thomson. “If you can convalesce the animals without sending them to sale or slaughter, you’re doing the industry a favor by not putting them in a sale barn or transporting them, and will also improve the bottom line.  I’ve yet to be on a place where we have done welfare assessments where almost always the actions also wind up improving the profitability of the cattle feeder.” (See "Implement Welfare in the Real World" practice tip).

Labor continues to be a challenge as well. When facilities are short on labor and time, background checks can fall through the cracks and people who want to do damage to the industry may slip through. It also makes it difficult to properly train day workers. 

Thomson believes our highest cattle welfare risk area is sending unthrifty animals to public areas (i.e. sale barns). “We’ve been working with beef and dairy producers to understand that if it’s an animal that they don’t think they’d want the public to see, don’t send it to the sale barn to recoup the 10 cents per lb. They need to remain on the farm.”

Veterinarians are critical to welfare

The veterinarian is in a unique position to provide guidance and leadership in all areas of beef cattle welfare. This is especially true if the veterinarian is a member of the operation’s management team. “But, in order for the veterinarian to be effective in this role, he must have support from the rest of the management team,” Sjekolcha states. “When I was involved in traditional cow-calf practice, I would get on many of my clients’ ranches only two to four times per year. As I have moved into more of a consulting practice, I get on my clients’ operations from 20 to 50 times per year. I have been much more effective in animal welfare training on these operations simply because I am much more involved in the management of the operation and have developed an excellent working relationship with the operation’s workers.”

When he was in feedlot practice, Thomson spent half of his time on the feedlot working with handling, facilities, cattle movement and other areas, which is a major focus for a feedlot veterinarian. “It’s something you can teach hands on; getting in with the crew and doing it while you’re there,” Thomson explains. “As a consulting or practicing veterinarian, working with clients on facilities or how they handle animals is important.” It’s not just on the feedlot, either, notes Thomson.” On cow-calf operations there has to be an understanding of cattle behavior and teaching clients about that behavior. That is especially important if you are lacking good working facilities.”

 Feedlots (and dairies) are used to working with consultants which can make a veterinarian’s role in welfare training and assessment easier on those operations. Thomson says a survey of feedlot consultants indicated 50% of the consultants do animal welfare assessments today, and 100% train employees, pen riders and processing crews on handling and welfare. “Not one said they don’t do these things,” he said.

Thomson’s group has written stocker and feedlot assessments and is currently writing the cow-calf welfare assessment. Currently these assessments are voluntary. “We have to develop the tools and show producers we are improving the profitability and welfare of animals,” Thomson explains. “We haven’t had an assessment not make money through improved performance. But if we are doing it for the sake of checking a box on a form, it will fail.”

Rural practitioners play a huge role in conducting these assessments on-farm. Logistically it makes sense because the rural practitioner is living in the area and understands the geography, climate and challenges associated with the local environment, and can make educated decisions. “We’re already writing health papers and have an infrastructure in place where we are gatekeepers of saying animals are healthy for sale or transport,” Thomson states. “The veterinarian is imperative to this process. This type of program gives food animal practitioners another way to be part of our industry besides being fire engine practitioners. We need to see it as building the bridge and bringing the rural practitioner into a consulting role on the cow-calf operation.”

Research continues to show that farmers and ranchers, along with veterinarians, are among the most credible spokespeople on animal care issues. Because of that, food-animal veterinarians have the opportunity to use this status as well as their scientific and animal husbandry knowledge, to talk to consumers about cattle production and welfare. “We need to be transparent and honest,” Sjeklocha recommends. “If the video shows reprehensible acts, don’t try to defend it. Simply state that the behavior is unacceptable and that your clients do not treat their livestock in that manner. Make it personal and assure the person that behavior such as that does not happen on your clients’ farms and it will not happen under your watch. Then, take advantage of this interest to educate them about agriculture.”

U.S. leads in beef welfare

Some people think European countries are the model for cattle welfare, but Thomson believes differently. Thomson serves as the chairman of the Beef Cattle Production and Animal Welfare Committee for the OIE, co-chairs the North American Food Animal Wellbeing Commission–Beef, and serves on other animal welfare committees, so he has had the opportunity to rub shoulders with welfare experts around the globe.

“We are the role model of the world for beef cattle welfare,” he states. “We have a lot to be proud of. We are one of the few countries that has developed the efficiency of these models to raise a wholesome nutritious product and keep it cost-effective. We are also practical. There is no doubt in our industry that our cattle and people come first, not politics. In some countries bad politics lead the way.”

And poor political decisions are what Thomson says the U.S. livestock industry needs to be concerned about. “We have seen the Obama administration go after the auto industry and tell them how to be regulated. Then it was the bankers and we told them how they would be regulated, and now it’s the medical profession. Next up will be agriculture and food. We need to show that we are a role model in food production and are not behind our European counterparts.”

Thomson says international cattle welfare standards can be dangerous as geography, management and production practices differ widely across the globe. For instance, a standard of castrating all calves prior to three months of age is not feasible in many areas. “A person from Africa pointed out to me that they would castrate cattle when they are able to catch them,” Thomson says. “Writing standards worldwide will be extremely difficult.”

Where we lag, says Thomson, is in our openness and education of consumers about agriculture. “Producers worldwide all care for their animals, but I think we have a more sophisticated, technological advantage and compassionate system for animal welfare.”

Speak up and speak out

“As veterinarians, we are constantly educating our clients about disease, welfare and management,” Sjeklocha says. “We are faced with another educational process, and that is to educate the public about animal agriculture.” One way to do that, he notes, is take The Master’s of Beef Advocacy course which is a free, online program from NCBA. Both Sjeklocha and Thomson have been through the program.

“It teaches you how to respond to online articles, how to conduct yourself in interviews and how to keep your message focused,” Sjeklocha explains. “It’s also important to get some media training. We also must step outside our comfort zone and get ourselves in front of people to talk about agriculture. Even in small towns, there are many people who have been misguided or simply do not understand agriculture. In late spring, elementary school teachers are looking for something to get their students’ attention and the local veterinarian with a simple PowerPoint talking about how their hamburger or ice cream is made could go a long way for our future.”

Thomson agrees that taking the program is one of the best things a food animal or companion animal veterinarian can do to get a handle on beef cattle production. “We have to be honest, open and invite small animal colleagues to understand the issues and teach the students these issues,” he says. “They have to be able to talk to clients about food animal issues so they can properly help us represent them to urban and suburban consumers.”

Thomson adds that food animal veterinarians need to be engaged with organized veterinary medicine, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in addition to species-specific groups. “Being only in our species specific groups we preach to the choir. But on a national level we need to involve leadership of AVMA who are food animal practitioners and bring it back to practitioners in the field.”  


Who are we fighting?

The groups which pose the biggest threat to animal agriculture and continuously battle the livestock industry on animal welfare are the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions Inc. (PDI), Washington, D.C. PDI is a public policy and communications company specializing in successfully repelling activist attacks on agriculture and biomedical research, which Kopperud calls the “two greatest quality of life issues for consumers” in the context of legitimate animal use in society.

“PETA says flat out ‘animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment or use in mindless entertainment;’ HSUS is less open about its goals, even going so far as to say it’s never advocated an end to animal agriculture,” Kopperud states. However, he adds, these groups’ actions — and the words of some of its leaders — make it clear they would prefer an end to animal agriculture and a shift to a vegetarian or vegan society.

“HSUS is a threat because of its public reputation as a dog/cat/spay/neuter/adoption organization, a reputation it exploits without restraint, and because of its bank account. It efficiently and cleverly leverages its reputation to portray itself as moderate. HSUS is also very good at multiplying its resources through mergers with smaller animal rights groups, alliances with other groups such as Farm Sanctuary and the Animal Welfare Institute, and creation of the Humane Legislative Action Fund, a move creating a group with a tax status that allows HSUS to spend whatever it wishes on lobbying state and federal government. HSUS went from a sleepy philosophical organization, to a very sophisticated, politically savvy group with the ascension of Wayne Pacelle as president. He has no compunctions about leveraging HSUS’s spending and media ability into a very influential campaign machine. PETA is a threat only because it’s such a damned good carnival sideshow; it keeps the media tuned into the animal rights issue, keeping the issue mainstream for the public.”

These are all-out attacks on our right to eat meat, milk and eggs, and also on the technologies we use to keep this country and big part of the world well fed, Kopperud states. “We cannot afford to return to 1930s agriculture and think we can keep people fed affordably and safely. We’re food producers first and foremost and we can’t forget that. Intercommodity rivalries and issues need to be put aside to fight this war. Money needs to be committed so that every time we sell a product, we’re selling the producer and the process. Put a producer’s face on your food!”

Industry fights back

Stepping up and speaking out from the industry is starting to happen. Some of the anti-animal agriculture organizations are facing a backlash from both the agriculture industry and even consumers. People are tired of getting told what to think and how to live their lives. “Witness the reemergence of fur on New York fashion show runways over the last several years,” Kopperud says.  

In more recent months, several companies that have supported these animal rights organizations have been targeted by the livestock industry using some of the same tactics the animal rights industry has done, namely social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and e-mailing corporate headquarters. Many people have seen the YouTube video of South Dakota cattle rancher and head of Advocates for Agriculture Troy Hadrick walk out into his snowy cattle pen and dump out a bottle of Yellowtail wine when it was discovered Yellowtail’s parent company was supporting HSUS. As of this writing, the video has had over 13,000 views. Pilot Travel Centers (PTC), a familiar truckstop with over 300 locations in 40 states also raised the ire of the agriculture industry when it was discovered it raised money for HSUS. Again, social media mobilized agriculture for a response. Both Yellowtail and PTC decided to re-direct or cease their HSUS donations once they were educated about the group.

“The electronic media has totally transformed how this battle is being fought,” Kopperud says. “Messages are transmitted instantaneously. HSUS and the rest of the animal rights movement is light years ahead of us in being able to exploit the electronic social media; we’re just now emerging on Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

Livestock legislation

A variety of bills have been introduced in the states and in Congress which could influence welfare and production of livestock from laying hen case sizes to subtherapeutic use of antibiotics. HSUS has brought Proposition 2 on sow, veal and laying hen housing to Congress in the form of HR 4733 by California House members Reps. Diane Watson and Elton Gallegly. The bill says the federal government can’t buy any product for any federal food program — Women/Infant/Children nutrition, school lunch/breakfast, and military, etc., from an animal housed in stalls or cages.

State legislation will continue to challenge state organizations, along with the HSUS propensity for spending millions of dollars on state referenda, i.e. Prop 2 and Missouri dog breeding. States should be aware of the process by which animal rights groups gain credibility in a state assembly, Kopperud warns. “First, a presence is established, by either setting up an office with organization staff or hiring a contract lobbyist. Relationships are built exploiting the ‘moderate’ image. Legislative aims are generally non-ag to begin with, e.g. puppy mills, ‘updating’ the state anticruelty law to remove the standard ‘usual and routine’ ag practices exemption, changing the penalties to felonies, etc. Then the big guns come out. State aggies are approached with an agenda akin to Prop 2, and they’re effectively told to get on the bus, get out of the way of the bus or get run over by the bus. The battle is then on.”

Beef cattle veterinarian Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, formed the Animal Stewardship group a couple of years ago to invite various livestock, agriculture and food production entities to come together to share ideas and strategize. “We can help each other, share our experiences, keep each other informed and simply communicate,” he says. “There is power in numbers, and the more our politicians hear from their constituents, the more we can influence them. If the poultry people need a little help, for example, even those of us who have nothing to do with poultry should help add some weight to their end of the seesaw.” 

Sjeklocha explains one of the strategies that animal rights groups use is to divide and conquer piece by piece within agriculture groups. “We’ve been told that the beef guys do it right and we should use that to our advantage over other livestock groups,” he says, “but the more fragmented agriculture is, the easier it will be for activists to take advantage. Not only does animal agriculture need to work together and develop a united front, but we must look for other opportunities to unite.”

Kopperud points to the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition (FAWC) an ad hoc coalition of national animal producer, general farm, feed, and crop groups as the reason Congress has never adopted a major anti-agriculture bill brought forward by animal rights groups. “FAWC is a single voice for agriculture on animal rights and anti-technology legislation and regulation,” says Kopperud who coordinates the group. FAWC recognizes no one group is large enough, rich enough or smart enough to take down the collective animal rights movement; it must be all of U.S. agriculture aligned together, he says. FAWC also liaises with various other groups of legitimate animal users across the country to ensure messages aren’t lost and support can be solicited and given where necessary.

As an example, Sjeklocha and the Animal Stewardship group have also reached out to other organizations who fight the same common enemy such as The National Rifle Association, the United States Sportsmen’s Association, the NAACP and the National Animal Interest Alliance (a group of primarily dog breeders), who all have interests in this battle and also carry heavy political clout in Washington.



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