Cattle welfare begins with the calf

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Taking my familiar 120-mile drive from Kansas City to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. this week, I passed though brilliant green (thanks to the spring rains) Flint Hills pastures dotted with healthy, grazing cattle. On my way to K-State’s Beef Cattle Institute 2nd International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare, it was difficult to believe those cattle had any welfare issues. And for the most part they don’t.

But this is where about 200 scientists, veterinarians, ranchers and other beef industry members in attendance and another almost 800 throughout the U.S. and some foreign countries via a live webcast, were drilling down into the beef industry and discussing what we can do even better. Noted cattle handling experts such as Temple Grandin, PhD and Tom Noffsinger, DVM, led frank discussions on how to handle cattle better using the science of cattle behavior.

“We must empower our caregivers to be dedicated to make every human-animal interaction a positive experience for both,” Noffsinger says. “We need to create more confidence in our caregivers to recognize abnormalities and develop interventions. This industry is built on integrity and character and we need to build on that idea.”

Often feedlots are the target for welfare discussions, but cattle welfare is practiced all along the production chain. Starting from the beginning of the chain, speakers at the symposium talked about nutrition and body condition of cows as they approach calving season so that they will have energy for calving and production of high-quality colostrum and milk to get newborn calves off to a good start. Thin cows can equal poor-doing calves, which is a welfare issue for both.

There were discussions about adjusting the calving season a bit to calve later and avoid most spring weather stress in the areas of the country that can have severe winter/spring weather. That may fly in the face of traditional early spring calving seasons designed to produce heavier calves in the fall going off to the feedlot. Yet, scientists have counterbalanced that with research that shows the benefits of more strategic summer forage use for cows, lower feed costs, lower calf morbidity/mortality and others.

Weaning strategies that can lessen calf stress have also been researched. Traditional weaning abruptly removes calves, some for a time before they go to the feedlot, others when they are headed there. This stress can have health and production effects. Newer research has explored and measured the effects of less-stressful weaning strategies such as fenceline and two-stage weaning.

Add those strategies to Noffsinger’s behavior-based cattle handling and you have cattle that will look to humans to for direction and give them their trust, from calf to feedlot animal.

The point is that these discussions are based on science, not emotion. Research looks at what all of these practices are doing on a morbidity, mortality and production basis. And when you have less sickness, fewer deaths and increased gain, you have healthy calves. Combine that with low-stress handling, and you have good cattle welfare.


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