Saturday, December 15, 2012

Low stress, high stress

We shipped calves last week, and the process provided an opportunity to observe how cattle react to both low stress and high stress handling.

The calves were weaned at 120 days and turned out on a former CRP pasture which ad been hayed once but not grazed for more than 10 years. On shipping day they were 240 days old and had been separated from mama for a full half of their lives.

I used a low stress approach to moving the calves from pasture to corral. As most cow-calf producers know from experience, moving weaned calves can quickly become a rodeo. But the low stress approach of using positional pressure, going slow enough to avoid  any hint of flight response, and practicing the rules of stop worked remarkably well. The calves entered the corral bright eyed, curious, relaxed and calm.

Then the truck driver arrived. Though clearly curious about the arrival of the truck, the calves remained calm and relaxed. But their behavior changed immediately upon the approach of the driver. He strode quickly toward the pen, swinging his hot shot, loudly shouting a greeting and clearly intent on quickly loading the calves come hell or high water.

The calves didn’t like the driver one bit, and as it turned out, for good reason. They jumped up and crowded into the farthest corner of the corral, snorting, eyes rolling, seeking an avenue of escape.

This reaction is worth taking note of. The calves weren’t bothered by the big, noisy truck arriving and beep-beep-beeping up to the chute only 50 feet away. But they reacted immediately to the driver, and well before he entered the pen.

A low stress handler must learn to “read” the responses of the cattle he or she is working. Experience teaches when and how to move, when to pause, and when to back off. These things can be taught in a classroom or described on paper, which is great. Add experience to those learned concepts and low stress handlers are born.

Just as we can “read” cattle behavior, cattle instinctively read our behavior. There’s a lot of evidence, including the event I’m describing, that supports the notion that cattle can sense our emotional state of mind. If we’re angry, impatient, or agitated, the cattle pick up on it. They are instinctively quite thorough in assessing potential threats.

As our truck driver approached the pen of calves, they assessed him as a potential threat and became agitated, bunching in the corner of the corral. Once he entered the pen, the driver moved directly and aggressively toward the calves, yelling and waving his arms and cattle prod. The driver clearly wanted to move the calves but he was standing between them and the gate! They had no place to go and were being threatened by a fast, noisy threat. With no avenue of escape, they reacted by panicking in place.

This is the classic starting point for a bad outcome. When cattle are in a confined panic situation, they naturally produce fight and flight hormones. With, a constant noisy threat present, no place to run to and no physically attacking predator to fight, hormone levels build to very high levels in the animals’ blood stream. This is one aspect of physiologic stress. Those hormones shut down and empty the gut and supercharge the muscles for fight or flight. Maintaining high stress levels in a confined area requires the expenditure of a great deal of energy. It is an exhausting, draining experience for the animal.

If the stressed animals are going directly to slaughter, they will be dark cutters, their muscle tissue overfilled with blood and adrenalin and unpalatable. Dark cutters are deeply discounted and usually end up as pet food.

If the stressed animals are going to a feedlot, perhaps via a sale barn, stress-induced exhaustion will lower their resistance to the novel pathogens they meet along the way. Some will get sick, and some of the sick ones will die. Sick or not, their digestive system will remain shut down until well after their stress levels have subsided. In an industry that relies on daily weight gain, stressed calves will experience daily weight loss for days or even weeks. Some of the most stressed will become “poor doers” and will never approach their natural fleshing potential.

To compound matters, our driver seemed to lack even a hint of cow-sense. He yelled. He waved his arms wildly. He kicked and punched. He constantly zapped every calf he was close enough to reach with his highly prized hot shot. At one point toward the end of the process, he finally left the pen to close the trailer door on the last calf. He must have been bored though, because he began poking his hot shot through the chute slats and zapping calves on the nose as they approached the chute! He single-handedly turned a pen of calm, quiet calves into a truck load of terrified, highly stressed animals.

In the driver’s defense, he’d clearly never been trained correctly, if at all. I suspect he learned his trade in the famous monkey-see, monkey-do school of higher education. He was a nice kid, personable and clean, clearly wanted to do a good job, and wasn’t afraid to get dirty. These are good things. But he was also impatient and wanted to get on the road, where a “real” truck driver belongs. Though he didn’t say so, his entire approach to loading the calves made it clear that he found working with cattle an unpleasant but necessary part of his job.

The industry is working hard to adopt low-stress and humane cattle handling and slaughter techniques. Producers are doing the same. But the transportation sector of the industry needs to get a handle on the way they operate. Had a PETA, HSUS, or other anti-ag activist been present with a video phone, our truck driver would have made the evening news.

Neither producers nor the industry as a whole can afford to allow high stress or cruel treatment of livestock. As producers of the calves in question, we took a significant financial hit in this case, about $3,000.

But we’re not without our own part of the blame. As a starting point, that driver should have been banished to the truck without his hot shot. Ideally he would have been monitored as he manipulated the calves in the trailer and reconfigured the internal panels. Any non-compliance with our instructions should have meant his immediate departure with an empty truck.

We also allowed ourselves to be swayed by the pressure to get the job done. The sale was scheduled for the next morning, and it was a big sale. In retrospect, I doubt we’d have lost $3,000 if we’d asked for another driver and waited a week.

We’ve had similar problems with local trucking companies in the past. We made it pretty clear to these companies that inappropriate driver behavior was not acceptable. Funny how well that worked.

We’ve now decided to exercise the “nuclear option.” We’re still drafting the loading plan, which trucking companies will have to sign off on. In addition to a mandatory formal briefing before any work begins, it will include a “no hot shot” provision and a scale of fines for inducing stress or mistreating livestock. We’ll have to video each evolution as well.

Cattle are not human beings. Most of those who read this column understand that. Even an anti-ag, pro animal rights activist, were he or she to read this piece, would have to agree (if he/she were willing to be honest) that cattle aren’t endowed with the basic traits that make human beings what they are. But they’re living, productive animals deserving of our respect. Food animals in our personal care deserve to be ‘husbanded’ – cared for properly and to the best of our ability.

This confuses a lot of people, most of whom exist two or more generations removed from any agricultural connection. But it conflicts some who actively farm and ranch, too. To some extent it even conflicts me. I husband those calves from birth, and I’m the very first human they ever see. I have a lot invested, fiscally and emotionally, in those cattle. Yet ranching is my vocation, not my avocation. As herding prey animals, my cattle will become prey. We humans are the predators. We predate every single thing we eat, whether it’s meat or vegetable. My truckload of calves will go to a feedlot, be raised to the optimum eating size, killed, dismembered and packaged for consumption by hungry consumers. That’s just how it works.

But until each animal is stunned and bled at the beginning of the slaughter process, they are living beings. They will feed us, make us grow strong and healthy. They deserve our respect before they become meat, and while they are alive they deserve to handled appropriately.


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