Cattle roaming the range are the iconic image of the American West, but a recent video of abusive animal handling at a California slaughterhouse has increased public scrutiny of the lives and deaths of beef and dairy cattle.
The Beef Cattle Institute, which Kansas State University founded in August 2007, had planned the International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare as its kickoff event long before the headlines. The AVMA became a meeting sponsor because its Animal Welfare Committee recognized a paucity of forums for rational discussion of beef cattle welfare.
The May 28-30 symposium attracted hundreds of participants—including veterinarians, producers, and academics—to examine the welfare of beef cattle relevant to weaning, castration, dehorning, transport, feedlots, slaughter, and other situations.
The presymposium sessions featured a cattle handling demonstration and producers' roundtable. The meeting's keynote speakers described the beef cattle industry in Europe and New Zealand (see sidebar). Other speakers addressed welfare challenges for the U.S. beef cattle industry, welfare guidelines and legislation in this country, methods of assessing pain and distress in cattle, and approaches to welfare concerns.
Dr. Ken Odde, head of the K-State animal science department, said during his opening remarks, "I think this conference is particularly timely because animal welfare is clearly not just an important issue but, I believe, a growing issue in animal agriculture."
Temple Grandin, PhD, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, spoke about how cattle handling at slaughterhouses has improved during the 35 years that she has been redesigning plants and training workers. She added that the slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif., represents maybe 10 percent of the industry.
Dr. Grandin said living conditions in feedlots were better in the '70s, though. Welfare issues in today's feedlots include mud, shade, and handling. Some of the issues on the ranch relate to handling, neglect, and procedures such as dehorning.
"If I brought my out-of-town guests—my Christmas guests, Thanksgiving guests, or wedding guests—and showed them everything we're doing, are you going to be proud of it or are you going to be squirming?" Dr. Grandin asked. "That's how we need to be looking at everything."
Yet, a recent national survey by Oklahoma State University found that the welfare of farm animals ranks low on a list of social issues, said Jayson Lusk, PhD, of the OSU Department of Agricultural Economics. His article, "A survey to determine public opinion about the ethics and governance of farm animal welfare," will appear in a forthcoming issue of the JAVMA. Survey respondents said the well-being of farm animals is less important than poverty, health care, food safety, the environment, the financial well-being of farmers, and food prices.
Mike Siemens, PhD, leader of animal welfare for Cargill Meat Solutions, contended that U.S. consumers can afford to demand changes in production practices because they spend a small percentage of their income on food. Major fast-food chains, facing additional pressure from activist groups, now audit the practices of meat suppliers.
The issue of animal welfare is all about emotion, argued Steven L. Kopperud, senior vice president of the governmental relations firm Policy Directions Inc. Nevertheless, the American public is fond of farmers as well as animals, so farmers can counter welfare legislation that they deem undesirable by putting a face on the issues.
Guidelines and legislation
As for voluntary measures, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has developed care and handling guidelines as part of the Beef Quality Assurance program. Dr. Bob Smith, an Oklahoma feedlot practitioner who helped develop the guidelines, said the NCBA has distributed almost 200,000 copies. The NCBA also distributed a guide on cattle transport in 2006 and a DVD on auction markets in 2007.
Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, said the willingness and ability of producers to adopt voluntary welfare guidelines or policies depend on the resulting efficiency, cost, and market demand in addition to the effects on the animals. In some cases, a voluntary framework may become the starting point for a regulatory framework.
"It's extremely important, even though most of the policies that we use in this country in food animal production are going to be voluntary for animal welfare, that considerable amount of attention be paid to those policies," Dr. Golab said. "And the reason is because when legislators are looking for solutions for problems, they will tend to take those solutions that already exist."
Dr. Golab said a rigorous process for developing welfare policy includes the following steps: identifying and defining the issue and establishing policy objectives, exploring options to achieve the objectives, designing an implementation strategy, allocating resources, assessing outcomes, and revising the policy as necessary. She said stakeholder engagement throughout the process is critical.
Recent revisions to the AVMA policy on cattle castration and dehorning resulted from this approach to policy development. The policy recognizes the procedures as important for safety and animal management, but it recommends employing techniques that reduce pain—or viable alternatives.
In terms of a regulatory framework for animal welfare, little federal legislation applies to livestock. Donald C. Lay Jr., PhD, research leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Livestock Behavior Research Unit, described the federal laws that restrict livestock travel time and require humane slaughter. The USDA also provides information and conducts studies on animal welfare. Dr. Lay's unit has studied the transportation of beef calves to identify indicators of stress, for example.
Assessing pain and distress
Assessing stress in cattle has proved to be challenging. Janice C. Swanson, PhD, director of animal welfare at Michigan State University, spoke about measuring relevant behavioral responses in cattle. These include postures, locomotion, vocalizations, temperament changes, limping, facial expressions, and elimination.
Dr. Swanson described a study of dehorning that measured less ear flicking by cattle that received analgesia. Other studies have measured behavioral responses to weaning, castration, branding, restraint, and isolation.
Physiologic measurements, such as measurements of cortisol concentrations, are another method for assessing stress in cattle. Dr. Kevin Stafford, a professor at the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at New Zealand's Massey University, spoke about cortisol responses in cattle to dehorning and castration. For dehorning, administration of a local anesthetic and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug eliminated the cortisol response for nine hours. For castration, local anesthetic eliminated the cortisol response—although surgical castration required administration of an anesthetic and an NSAID.
Recognizing compromised cattle, which are at risk of becoming nonambulatory, also can be difficult. Suzanne Millman, PhD, an associate professor of animal welfare at Iowa State University, said sickness behavior may be an adaptive response that spares energy for healing. Recognizing compromised cattle involves looking at the animals' body condition score, activity, and feeding behavior.
Dr. Lynn Locatelli, who bases her practice in Benkelman, Neb., offers training in low-stress cattle handling. Dr. Locatelli, Dr. Tom Noffsinger, Clint Hoss, and Curt Pate conducted the cattle handling demonstration during the International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare.
Approaches to welfare concerns
Veterinarians, producers, and academics are looking at new and old approaches to cattle husbandry even as they refine methods for evaluating the animals' responses.
Frank Mitloehner, PhD, an associate professor of animal science at the University of California-Davis, has been studying heat stress in cattle in feedlots. His research compared providing shade for cattle with misting or sprinkling water on the animals when the air temperature exceeded 90 F. Cattle fared best in the shade, partly because shade reduced ground temperature as well as air temperature.
While a number of speakers discussed analgesia for painful procedures in cattle, Dr. Emily R. Smith, who evaluates animal drugs at the Food and Drug Administration, noted that the FDA has not approved any analgesic drugs for use in food animals. She referred attendees to information from the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank in "Extralabel use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle," a FARAD Digest in the March 1, 2008, issue of the JAVMA.
A full-day presentation on cattle handling preceded the International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare at Kansas State University.
One reason that the FDA has not approved any analgesic drugs for food animals is a lack of validated methods for pain assessment. Dr. Hans Coetzee, an assistant professor at the K-State veterinary college, presented preliminary data relating plasma analgesic drug concentrations to mitigation of the plasma cortisol response in cattle after castration. He has received a USDA grant to expand his work.
Dr. Jan K. Shearer, University of Florida dairy extension veterinarian, spoke about situations in which euthanasia is the responsible way to relieve animal suffering. Dr. Shearer said veterinarians should encourage timely euthanasia and make certain that farm workers receive training in appropriate euthanasia techniques.
The symposium's last speaker—Mhairi Sutherland, PhD, an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University animal science department—addressed cattle welfare in relation to sustainability. She said beef cattle can be a sustainable source of food because they can live off land unsuitable for crops. Improvements in animal welfare must not compromise food safety, Dr. Sutherland emphasized.
Dr. Dan Thomson, director of the Beef Cattle Institute and symposium moderator, closed the meeting with a brief summary of the wide-ranging discussion. In his remarks, he also referenced the abusive practices at the Chino slaughterhouse.
"We need to condemn those who are doing wrong—and realize that, when it comes to ensuring animal welfare, it's the right thing to do," Dr. Thomson said.
Dr. Ralph Richardson, dean of the K-State veterinary college, noted separately from the meeting that the Beef Cattle Institute chose welfare as the topic of the kickoff symposium because of ongoing societal needs. He said the institute encompasses issues of production, health, and welfare from cow-calf operations to the ranch to the feedlot.
"It addresses concerns from farm to fork," Dr. Richardson said.