Animal welfare is a hot topic and the most frequent term used when consumers are asked to define sustainable beef. In many instances animal welfare can be associated with clear controversial issues such as swine gestation crates and poultry battery cages but those are not used in the beef industry, so you might think that the beef industry does not have any animal welfare issues or room for improvement. Even though less negative publicity is attribute to beef production compared to other livestock sectors, cattle welfare is still top of mind for consumers who buy beef products. So, what are the animal welfare issues in beef production and how can we address them?
First, let’s learn how animal behavior and welfare scientists evaluate animal welfare. Many conceptual frameworks exist, but the most basic and well known involves the 5 freedoms (Figure 1) –
- freedom from hunger and thirst,
- freedom from discomfort,
- freedom from pain, injury or disease,
- freedom to express normal behavior, and
- freedom from fear and distress.
These are assessed using resource-based measurements such as availability of proper nutrition, protection from the elements, and natural environment in which to live, animal-based measures such as expression of normal behavior, availability of veterinary care, and incidence of injuries and disease, and management-based measures such as proper training of personnel in animal husbandry, low-stress animal handling procedures, and characteristics of transportation.
Good animal welfare is important to sustainable beef production as it is directly associated with animal health and behavior, which can affect cattle performance and profitability. Some of the animal welfare concerns in the beef industry raised by animal welfare specialists comprehend the difficult or failure to identify and treat sick animals in large operations; procedures considered painful such as branding, castration, and dehorning; impacts of heat and cold stress on health; risk for digestive disorder in feedlot cattle; long transportation times, commingling, and feedlot overstocking.
Research indicates that cattle with poor nutrition, subclinical disease, and stress have reduced growth and reproductive performance. It has long been known that relieving environmental stressors (cold, heat, mud, long transportation times, etc.) improves growth of cattle, and more recently we have learned that lessening psychological stressors such as human handling and weaning improves cattle performance.
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s definition of animal health and well-being aligns well with the 5 freedoms and is the cumulative effects of cattle health, nutrition, care, and comfort (https://www.usrsb.org/goals). They indicate that 4 key considerations should be the focus of management decisions and ranch practices:
- Provide adequate feed, water, housing, and care
- Provide disease prevention protocols
- Provide facilities for safe and humane movement and restraint
- Provide personnel with proper training in handling and care
Applying these principles to the cow-calf sector of the industry indicates that cows should have adequate forage available to meet nutritional requirements, and when necessary, protein, energy, and mineral supplements to alleviate deficiencies. Cutting corners on nutrition obviously has negative implications on animal well-being, but also generally reduces efficiency and profitability.
Cattle housing should include open pastures, clean wintering areas, and dry places to lie down when conditions dictate. Keeping cattle comfortable improves welfare and performance. Cold, wet, muddy cattle are not comfortable, their maintenance energy requires are 50 to 100% greater, and performance (growth or lactation) is reduced.
Adequate cattle care involves regular, frequent herd checks to promptly identify diseased or injured animals for immediate treatment. Every ranch should have a veterinary client patient relationship to develop and implement effective herd health programs. Standard health programs such as vaccinating calves at branding and weaning are not always appropriate to manage the health challenges on every ranch. Ranch managers should work with their veterinarian to identify the specific animal health issues for their ranch to best protect the herd from disease.
Cattle handling facilities should be designed for easy cattle flow and safety of cattle and humans during the process. Handling facilities do not have to be expensive to meet animal welfare standards but should be designed based on normal animal behavior and allow cattle to be moved using flight zone principles rather than frequent prodding. And all personnel, even if they have previous cattle experience, should be trained, or reminded of proper cattle handling and husbandry practices on every ranch, no matter how large or small.
Training ranch personnel can be time consuming – keeping up with new developments in cattle handling and husbandry and developing training materials. The beef industry already has an effective training and education program, Beef Quality Assurance (BQA), that will cover the basics for every ranch. This program, provided by the state cooperative extension service, can help managers stay abreast of new practices and provide basic training for new employees. Ranch managers should provide additional ranch-specific training and monitor that BQA guidelines are being followed.
A focus on achieving good animal welfare will improve sustainability of beef in the eyes of the consumer, and will increase the efficiency and profitability for the rancher.