Calm down and stop screaming at cattle, says expert
Animal welfare has improved since the 1990s, but there’s still room for improvement, says a world renowned animal behaviourist.
“Slaughterhouses were easy. They were easy fixes. We didn’t have to rebuild these plants to fix them,” Temple Grandin said of her pioneering work with major meat processors and buyers that brought improved handling, curved chutes and non-slip flooring to slaughterhouses.
“Now some of the farm things are going to be harder to do.”
For example, she said today’s small U.S. cattle herd means fewer animals are being vaccinated.
“We had 40 percent of our feeder calves going into market with no vaccinations because the price of cattle is so high that there’s no economic (difference) between vaccinated and non-vaccinated, so the rancher has no incentive at all to do it,” she said in an interview following a presentation to a packed room of students and faculty at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine March 11.
“When the price of cattle gets low, and there’s lots of feeder cattle around to put in the feed yards, the rancher can get a premium price for his pre-vaccinated calves and gets financially rewarded. Right now, cattle prices are sky high, feeder cattle are scarce. Feed yards have got to fill the hotel up, so they’ll buy anything.”
The Colorado State University professor and noted autism activist was at the university to help the veterinary college launch a new animal welfare fund to support research.
Big agriculture isn’t bad, said Grandin. It’s efficient and low cost, but it’s also fragile. Delays at port, as seen in the United States and Canada in recent years, can shake up business. Likewise, systems can push animals too hard. Grandin pointed to pig herds and poultry flocks that are vulnerable to disease and cases of lost hooves in cattle fed the beta agonist Zilmax.
A new label has been approved for Zilmax at a reduced dosage since those cases in 2013.
“It all gets down to pushing biology too hard,” she said.
“You push biology too hard either genetically — you look at the race horse who breaks its legs, that’s genetic — or you push it too hard with just feeding it nothing but corn or you push that animal too hard with beta agonists. There’s a point where the biology just starts to fall apart.”
Cattle handling has improved at U.S. feed yards, but Grandin said she knows it can still be an issue at auction yards, where the people handling the cattle don’t have the same vested interest. These are problems with inexpensive fixes, she added. It’s a matter of training and management.
“The first thing I’d do is calm down, stop screaming and yelling,” she said.
“If you’re working cattle in the feed yard, you bring 10 up at a time, not 20, so they’re going to have to walk a bit more. That’s something that can be improved by just changing management. I don’t have to spend hardly any money to improve it.”