The Beef Quality Assurance program today is a nationally recognized tool U.S. cattlemen rely on not only for food safety and prudent antibiotic-use guidelines but, increasingly, as a measure of their dedication to animal welfare.
Low-stress handling is a key element in the BQA certification and assessment process. Veterinarian Dan Thomson, a professor at Kansas State University's Beef Cattle Institute, is a past BQA Educator of the Year. He says the program continues to grow and evolve and, today, is a cornerstone for all segments of the beef industry.
While there are many aspects of BQA, for the cow/calf producer, a select few are especially critical. Not only are they important to animal welfare, but, over time, they add to an operation's profitability. Stressed cattle lose more weight in transport, and they bring less money at auction.
Thomson believes one area, in particular, deserves extra attention when it comes to reducing stress, and it ties into that new BQA transportation certification. More cow/calf producers, he notes, need to have facilities to properly and safely load animals onto trailers.
"Estimates are around 50% of the stress cattle are exposed to occurs at the time they are loaded and unloaded from trailers. I see this as our biggest issue today," he says. "It's just so critical to make sure we have proper facilities to load and work cattle."
In many cases, he adds, a dual-use system will work for producers. This includes a bud box or tub. Cattle can exit through these to a squeeze chute or to a ramp. There is the added benefit of this being something producers can use for processing and medical treatments, as well as to ease pressure at loading time.
THE VALUE OF TIME
There's another area Thomson notes needs some work, and it won't cost a dime.
He says as technology increases, cattle producers often spend less time with herds, walking through them, feeding them, exposing them to positive human contact.
"We put feedbunks on the fenceline, so we drive our trucks down the bunks to put out feed. We use forks to put out hay bales, jumping out of the cab of the tractor just long enough to cut off the bale wrap. We're even using dart guns to doctor cattle. We simply aren't interacting with them as much as we once did, and it's starting to show."
He says evidence cattle could benefit from a little more human interaction is pretty clear at sale barns, where wild behavior often means a lower price. It also impacts treatment at the feedlot.
"Cattle that are wilder don't trust the handlers or caregivers, and they don't let down their guards down and show us symptoms of disease. I hear auction market and feedlot people talk, and they are saying cattle are becoming less domesticated. We think it's because people are using more technology and decreasing the time they are walking around in the herd."
He also stresses it's important producers cull problem animals and continually select for a docile temperament when choosing bulls.
Thomson, who discovered a novel syndrome that affects feedlot cattle (Fatigued Cattle Syndrome, or FCS), notes high-stress handling is one element that contributes to the issue. It's a condition that's been used to describe market-weight cattle that develop metabolic acidosis and have difficulty walking when presented to abattoirs. Multiple studies have reported improper handling can induce clinical signs and blood abnormalities similar to those reported by Thomson for FCS in 2015.
BQA standards for cattle handling can go a long way toward lowering stress and building trust. Some of the things they emphasize include:
· Cattle should not be whipped or hit with any object(s) that can cause pain, harm or injury.
· Nonambulatory cattle should never be kicked or prodded.
· Avoid slippery surfaces where cattle need to enter or exit an alley or chute.
· Use the animal's flight zone to move them.
· Minimize use of electric prods.
· Any nonelectric driving aids, like plastic paddles or sorting sticks, should be quietly and gently used to guide animals.
· Consider use of properly trained herding dogs to help move cattle.
· To make handling and movement easier, be sure facilities are evaluated under BQA assessment tools.
For More Information: Contact your state BQA representative at www.bqa.org/programs.
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