Packing plant boosts productivity by addressing cattle behaviour

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A talk about animal handling made simple by renowned animal behaviourist Temple Grandin inspired one Cargill Meat employee to take her advice and fix ongoing problems at a California plant.

“Our prod scores were too high, we had a lot of balking throughout the process and cattle didn’t want to move. We had gaps in our production line,” said Heather Ercolano, who works for Cargill Meat Solutions in Fresno, where 1,500 dairy cows are processed daily.

Many of the cows arriving at the plant were fatigued, so Ercolana looked for ways to make them more comfortable. She crawled into chutes and walked the pens to see where improvements could be made.

“Pay attention to what the data is showing you. If your cows are balking … go out and figure out why are they balking,” she said at the North American Meat Institute’s animal care and handling conference, held Oct. 18-19 in Kansas City.

She tried to see things as a cow might and discovered the chute sides leading to the restrainer were open and causing distractions. Sheets of cardboard were installed to keep wavering shadows and light beams from spooking the animals.

Results were observed for three weeks and the cows began moving easier. Permanent solid sides and a catwalk were installed for employees to monitor the cows as they went through.

When Ercolano walked through the holding pens, she found that the area was too hot and stressed already tired cows. Fans were strategically placed, lowering the temperature by 10 to 15 degrees.

“The cost of fans was actually recovered within four days of production by the fatigued animals we were actually able to get into the plant,” she said.

Small water troughs were installed in the pens. The cattle could have a sip of water without filling up and causing problems during processing. The buckets providing water cost $15 each.

They also changed the way cattle are unloaded from trailers. The animals were walking down single file, but if one of them slipped and fell, the others could not move or trampled it. New cleats were installed on ramps for easier walking.

The results for one year showed marked improvement.

Prod use in October 2017 was around 15 percent of the time, dropping to 1.3 percent a year later.

This plant also has a big staff turnover, so when new employees start they are trained to understand these standards.

Daily results are posted on a white board so staff can see how they are doing. They get T-shirts that say “safely and humanely,” and pizza lunches are offered when workers stay under two percent prod use for three months.

“Make one change at a time. This took us nine months to get here, but it was all simple,” she said.

Grandin said people need regular reminding on movement and handling of livestock.

“Something really simple can make a big difference,” she said.

Cattle, sheep and pigs have wide angle vision, so they can be distracted by shadows, reflections on metal or water, moving objects, air blowing in their faces, dangling chains or people moving.

Animals will enter a restrainer more easily if the entrance is lit. They tend to go toward the light, but it should not shine in their faces and blind them.

Vocalization scores in cattle are a measure of trouble or stress.

“If you have got a lot of mooing going on around the stun box, you have got trouble,” Grandin said.

Handling has improved in plants, but it needs constant monitoring. She regularly audits plants and notices that most people are doing better and have refrained from using electric prods.

“An electric prod should not be a primary driving tool,” she said.

New tools such as small flags on a stick can direct cattle to move, but a common mistake is people keep flapping them, which undermines the effort.

Grandin said people working with animals need to understand the flight zone and following behaviour. The point of balance is usually at the animal’s shoulder and is determined by the animal’s wide angle vision. All types of livestock will move forward if the handler stands behind the point of balance, but many make the mistake of standing in front of the point of balance.

Also, calm animals have a smaller flight zone, where they perceive danger, but tame ones have no flight zone.

Good handling requires working with animals on the farm. This means more walking for cattle, pigs and people. Wild animals unaccustomed to people walking among them or riding a horse can be unpredictable. Once they are penned, they can go wild and become dangerous.

“We have got to fix this problem back at the farm,” she said.

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