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.


  1. Excellent post, man!
    Kudos for giving voice to rationality.
    (I can just picture the "tight-lipped, white-faced anger" - eeyikes!)

  2. Ran across you blog though a mutual friend that we have. Loved this post. We too are against cattle prods and what you said about using the device as a "last resort" rings so true with our operation and the way we work our cattle. Calm and quiet always wins.