Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cattle prod: tool or torture device?

Monday was a pretty good day for the EJE Ranch. We sold last season’s calf crop and the strong feeder market ensured a good price. These were steer and heifer calves we chose to background after weaning, and they gained well in our little home-place feedlot, adding an average of just over 200 pounds per head since Nov. 1.

High corn and hay costs bit deeply into our margin, of course, but the market was strong enough to ensure a reasonably tidy profit.

Shipping day, unfortunately, was not such a good day.

It started badly, when I was late for loading. Just a misunderstanding; I thought 1 p.m. was the appointed time but it was actually 11 a.m. After receiving a call from the boss, I arrived only a few minutes later than the truck.

The boss, a couple of nephews, and the truck driver were already in the pen, moving the calves into the loading pen. My heart sank as I noticed the driver wielding a “hot shot,” or cattle prod. These devices have their place, but our place isn’t one of them.

A cattle prod is essentially a large plastic stick with a battery pack handle and electrodes on the tip. The purpose of the device is to deliver a painful shock. They are supposed to be used sparingly and as a last resort to urge a recalcitrant critter forward. Unfortunately, some folks zap every animal they can reach, and they do it constantly, regardless of the situation. Our truck driver was one of those.

My personal dilemma was figuring out how to educate the driver on the proper use of the cattle prod without losing my temper. My gut reaction – which I did not employ – was to snatch the hot shot from his hands and either smash it or give the driver a dose of his own medicine, perhaps accompanied by a few punches and kicks. There was a time when I would have instantly applied the physical approach. As a responsible adult, however, physicality has to remain a backup method.

Education is really the key, and in this situation, knowing the driver and his personality, teaching by showing seemed to be the proper approach. So I waded into the fray and tried to demonstrate proper low-stress cattle handling techniques.

It didn’t do much good at first. The driver continued to lash out with his hot shot, zapping every calf he could reach, regardless of the situation in the pen. He was also bellowing at the top of his voice, “YAH— YAH — YAH!” The calves swirled around the pen, wild-eyed, skidding and scampering, desperate for a way out. Each lash of the hot shot prompted a pain- and terror-filled bellow.

The scene nearly made me physically sick. And it made me intensely angry. For the first time in their lives, these calves were being mistreated. After nearly a year of watching them grow from birth, of husbanding to their needs and treating them with the care and respect they deserve, I was incensed by the driver’s actions.

Fortunately, he gradually slowed and finally stopped his use of the cattle prod. Perhaps he picked up on my tight-lipped, white-faced anger. Perhaps he realized that my methods were working better (and more quickly) to load the calves. Or maybe his arm just got tired. I don’t know.

But I do know he was physically mistreating those calves, and while such treatment may have been the norm in the past, it needs to be stamped out in the present and future. For many reasons.

Firstly, capturing such treatment on video and posting it on the internet is the dream of every animal rights activist. These people want all animals set free, and for the human consumption of meat to end immediately and forever. These are goals I clearly don’t agree with, but I do agree with such activists when they say that the indiscriminate use of cattle prods is simple torture. So long as anyone in the food-animal production business, including our truck driver, is torturing a single animal, the animal rights folks potentially get free ammunition to use against the production ag sector, and proof that at least one of their claims is true.

Secondly, and most importantly, we have a responsibility to treat our livestock with best practices and with the care and respect they deserve. They feed us and clothe us, make possible our chosen life and lifestyle, nourish our grasslands, and provide us joy and delight in our daily lives. Intentionally mistreating livestock is the antithesis of animal husbandry. It’s a sick and disgusting practice.

Thirdly, proper animal husbandry is an economic plus for the producer. Study after study after study proves that reduced stress for the animals equals increased profitability. Unstressed animals are simply healthier animals which grow better and produce an excellent, flavorful and highly nutritious product. Adding stress decreases health and vigor and adversely affects the meat product.

After Sunday’s debacle, the boss said he’s going to talk to the owner of the trucking company, making it clear that drivers who mistreat our cattle will not be tolerated. We’ve agreed to put signs banning the use of cattle prods around the corrals and loading area. And in the future we’ll clearly brief the help – including truck drivers – on their responsibility to practice low-stress livestock handling techniques on our ranch.

As I said, there is a place for the cattle prod. In the hands of stockman it can be the right tool for the right job. In the hands of a sicko or a fool, however, it's a torture device in the hands of a torturer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

a miss is as good as a miracle

As I got out of my pickup, parked behind the hardware store, my hand went automatically to the cell phone pouch on my belt. The pouch was flat. Empty. The cell phone was gone.

Bad word!

Where could the darned thing be? My mind began to race. I checked in the pickup, but that was a forlorn hope. I’d never be that lucky. Okay, let’s see…

The tractor! I’d used the tractor earlier to feed cows, since the hydra-bed pickup was down. And I’d lost the phone in the tractor twice before. Something about the seat design (or my body design) seems to push the phone up and out of the pouch sometimes.

After finishing in the hardware store, I sped back out to the ranch. “C’mon, cell phone, be in the tractor!”

But it wasn’t.

I fairly tore the cab of that ol’ John Deere apart, pulling out tool boxes and chains and pins and clevises. I found the small crescent wrench I’d been looking for for two years, and a chain hook that I’d given up on and replaced, but there was no cell phone to be found. Rats!

Oh, well. Nothing to be done. If the phone is gone, it’s gone. As I replaced the gear in the tractor cab, I thought about all the steps I’d soon be making to replace the cell phone. Call the company. Select a new phone. Maybe one of those phones with “aps.” There’s a cool one, GPS enabled, that shows you the stars in the night sky, complete with all the star names. Yep, one of those “3-G” gadget phones with a keyboard for texting. I wondered how much they cost. Will I have to change my plan? Can I afford a phone like that, particularly as I occasionally loose the darn things?

Mind whirling with possibilities, I climbed down from the tractor and strode toward my pickup. Then a glint of light caught my eye, and I looked back toward the tractor. There was my cell phone, laying in the rutted snow no more than three inches in front of the left front tire.

I stood there looking at it for a few moments, thinking. Somehow I’d managed to drop the phone on the ground, drive the tractor right past it (I’d made a jog to the right when I started so I could look at the ice in the corral tank), went and fed cows, drove the tractor back to where I’d begun, minus three critical inches, and managed to save my cell phone from certain, crushing death.

Was it a miracle? I chose to think so. It was my birthday, after all. Had to be a miracle.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Grass 101

Stemless hymenoxis, a native perennial forb in High Plains rangeland, provides a splash of color on this shortgrass prairie in the southwest Panhandle. Grass species in the photo include green needlegrass, buffalograss and blue grama, and scattered crested wheatgrass.
Though we're mired in the depths of winter today, spring is just around the corner. As air and soil temperatures begin to creep up, the praire, pastures and rangeland of the High Plains will begin to wake up. Grass is more important than you might think, so let's talk grass. If you got here looking for information on hippy lettuce and left-handed cigarettes, you're on the wrong blog.

Whether a herd numbers thousands of head or comprises a single 4-H goat, grass is one of the two most vital requirements for the livestock producer. Without good forage and water, livestock production is simply impossible. Leaving water aside, it follows that grass is so vital to producers that each operation must arm itself with graduate level knowledge of grass in general and an intimate and comprehensive understanding of their owned or leased rangelands.

Nearly all producers possess such knowledge and understanding. They simply wouldn’t survive otherwise. But often their knowledge exists as scattered bits of formal and informal information, institutional memory and habit, and the kind of sixth sense developed over years of experience.

Cows and calves on a native shortgrass prairie south of Kimball, Neb. Grass and grass-like species providing forage on this pasture include threadleaf and needleleaf sedge, green needlegrass, western wheatgrass and crested wheatgrass, buffalograss, blue grama and hairy grama.
In the twenty-first century, and especially here on the semi-arid Wyo-Braska high plains, savvy operators have learned that combining knowledge and experience can pay dividends when it comes to making decisions on grazing and range management. Today’s operator can take advantage of a wide range of information and research in the quest to combine knowledge and understanding into an integrated operational management scheme. Land Grant Colleges like the Universities of Wyoming and Nebraska provide a wide range of Extension services and products. Private ag sector businesses provide many services and products as well. And cooperative ventures such as the High Plains Ranch Practicum allow the free exchange of information and experience between public and private sectors and the operators themselves.

Let’s take a look at the basics of the High Plains rangeland ecosystem, and in particular, grass.

A semi-arid vegetative zone generally has annual precipitation between 10 and 20 inches and an overnight temperature falloff during the summer months. Another characteristic is the wide annual variation in the timing of precipitation, as well as the quantity of precip delivered during the events. The possibility of drought is never far away on the High Plains.

With grass such an important part of livestock production, it pays to know as much as possible about the rangeland used for the operation. Whether owned or leased, the operator needs to know what’s available for grazing, what shape it’s in and what its growth characteristics are to make the best short- and long-term use of this vital asset.

This curious 13-lined ground squirrel stands amid the bounty of the shortgrass prairie, surrounded by cool and warm-season grasses and native perennial wildflowers.
This knowledge starts with a basic understanding of what grass is and what it does. Simply put, grass is the major energy source for all terrestrial (land) animals. Grass photosynthesizes carbohydrate from sunlight, atmospheric carbon dioxide and water, storing the energy-dense nutrient in above ground foliage and below ground roots. Grass makes up the base of the terrestrial food pyramid and constitutes the main (or a significant part of) food source of terrestrial herbivores, which are in turn consumed by omnivores and carnivores. It’s no exaggeration to say that all terrestrial life is grass fed.

Rangeland is a discreet ecosystem, easily as complex as the most pristine rain forest. Rangeland grasses are unique in the plant world in that their root systems are more extensive than their above ground herbage. In shortgrass rangeland root systems can be five or more feet deep; some tallgrass stands root to a depth of better than 30 feet.

These extensive root systems allow grasses to find and use water and nutrients throughout the soil profile, which helps them survive in dry years and explode with herbage production in wet years. They also anchor soils and provide a rich environment where symbiotic microorganisms thrive and boost soil fertility. Many rangeland grasses reproduce through their root systems as well, pushing rhizomatous stems out beneath the soil from which new plants arise.

Here on the Wyo-Braska High Plains, native and reintroduced rangeland grass species include cool and warm season grasses and grass-like plants (sedges). Native range is shortgrass prairie, and reintroduced grasslands shortgrass species with a scattering of mid-height grasses.

Sedges are usually the first to green up in the spring, followed by cool-season and then warm-season grasses. There is considerable variation between species and even within species according to location, but most grass growth occurs during 30-60 day rapid growth periods corresponding to the onset of particular air temperatures. In general, maximum growth in cool-season grasses occurs when air temperatures are 65 to 75 degrees, while max growth of warm-season grasses occurs with 90-95 degree air temps.

Such growth characteristics allow range grasses to produce the bulk of their above ground herbage during a relatively short period each year. The staggered peak growth periods between types and species generally provide a three to four month annual period of lush, palatable and preferred forage for selective grazers, likely as a result of rangeland ecosystem evolution. Peak growth occurs relatively early in the season, and once past this heavy herbage production period, above ground growth slows markedly, with the plants essentially in maintenance mode until hard freeze.

Herbage production and plant growth during peak growth is highly correlated to soil moisture and air temperature. Both are required. Under severe drought conditions grass may remain essentially dormant. If moisture is available, however, peak growth will occur when air temperatures are appropriate and will be limited by moisture availability. In wet years herbage production will be abundant, in dry years production will be sparse.

Aside from herbage production, which is so essential as forage to livestock producers, root growth and development is at its highest level during peak growth. With root systems making up the bulk of grass plants, root development is obviously vital to the range ecosystem. Carbohydrates derived from photosynthesis provide the plant with the energy needed for both above and below ground growth. When carbohydrate production is reduced by grazing, the plant diverts energy from root development to herbage production in an effort to maintain photosynthetic carbohydrate production. This shift from below to above ground growth has been called root mining. Depending on factors like grazing pressure, soil moisture, and air temperature, root mining can be detrimental to the long and short term health of the plant, and by extension, the range ecosystem. Heavy grazing during drought can debilitate an entire pasture, which may take years to recover. Even modest grazing during peak growth results in some level of root mining. The operator’s challenge is to understand his rangeland and livestock as a discrete system and introduce management practices which enhance both profitability and sustainability.

In general, most recommended range management schemes include dividing range into a number of pastures and rotating grazing dates and periods between them from year to year. In a four-year rotation, a particular pasture might be heavily grazed during peak growth one year, rested the next year, then lightly and moderately grazed in the next two years.

Range management plans will necessarily be different for different operations. No two rangeland parcels are alike, weather varies from year to year, and grazing requirements change according to economic and other variables. Designing and implementing a range management plan can be a complex and daunting task, but armed with knowledge and experience, operators can employ powerful strategies to maximize both profitability and sustainability.