With the fall run in full swing, I’ve had the opportunity to be at a number of feedlots where they were processing fall calves.
As I watched the processing crews, I was impressed at the stockmanship that I witnessed. There was no shouting, everybody was calm and quiet and animals were moved through the system calmly.
There is no doubt that good facilities played a role in how well the cattle were moving through the processing barns, but a great deal of the credit had to go to the processing crews themselves.
Electric prods were almost never used, there were few vocalizations from the calves and the crews obviously understood how to calmly influence cattle movement through the facility.
I was impressed, and I believe the cattle industry has made huge strides in cattle handling during the last decade or more.
A recent publication in the journal Translational Animal Science brought this subject again to mind as I prepared to write this column.
The paper was published by researchers from West Virginia University and evaluated stockmanship at 39 feedlots in Texas between March 2018 and April 2019.
The authors of the study developed a “stockmanship scorecard”, which was used to score the activities of 84 animal health crew members at these feedlots.
The scorecard evaluated 30 observation points identified from previous scientific studies on cattle welfare. These were grouped into three major categories including situational awareness, herding skill, and noise/physical contact.
The situational awareness category assessed factors such as observing how the stockperson functioned as a member of the animal-handling team, if they understood the capabilities of the facility and moved animals appropriately through gates and other pinch points. It also evaluated if they loaded the appropriate number of animals into the crowding tub and if they avoided working in the animal’s blind spots.
The herding skill evaluated if the stockperson understood how to use an animal’s flight zone and point of balance to produce positive animal movement.
The noise/physical contact category evaluated the animal handlers’ use of voice, prods or physical force to encourage animal movement.
A perfect score was 100 and points were deducted for mistakes.
In addition, researchers scored the cattle behaviour as they moved through the processing facility as either calm/quiet, slightly jumpy, excited/wound-up, or stubborn/hesitant.
The average score for the animal handlers was 84.5 out of 100 and an impressive 45 percent of the stockpersons evaluated received a perfect or near-perfect score.
The most common animal-handling mistakes were filling the crowding tub more than half full, unnecessary noise, standing in front of the animal while tapping on the rear, and failing to regulate animal flow through pinch points.
The scorecard system had targeted passing thresholds established for all of the observation points, such as less than two animals falling when released from the chute. As well, there were failures observed in these beef quality assessment guidelines. Most of the failures were associated with higher than acceptable prod use and in most cases these were a single category failure.
The authors also noted that the stockpersons who scored above average on the scorecard for stockmanship were qualitatively described by the observers as calm and quiet while working with the cattle. It was also noted that as the score of a stockperson decreased and there were more negative actions towards the cattle, the cattle responded with more negative behavioural responses.
In the introduction to their article, the authors quoted Dr. Harold Gonyou, a retired animal behaviour researcher who worked at the University of Saskatchewan’s Prairie Swine Centre.
“The most important part of a livestock-handling system are the persons who handle the animals and operate the facilities and equipment.… The potential of well-designed facilities and equipment will only be realized if the stockpersons use them properly,” Gonyou said.
I believe we’ve made tremendous strides in the field of low-stress animal handling, but we still have improvements to make.
There is no doubt that good facilities are a crucial factor, but in the end it always comes down to the people who are handling the cattle.
The next time you are handling your cattle, think about how you might be scored on one of these scorecards. Be honest. When we poll people about driving habits, everyone thinks they are better than the average driver, and I expect our opinion of our animal-handling skills are much the same.
There are great opportunities to get more practical training on cattle handling out there. Take advantage of them and let’s keep improving at this important skill.
John Campbell is a professor in the department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.