Monthly Archives: March 2011
When I first began working, I thought I could surely get by without using a hot shot. The truth is, sick cattle really are much different than normal, happy cattle. Just like people, they get grumpy when they don’t feel good. They become uncooperative because their noses are runny or their heads hurt from their fever or their lame leg is painful to walk on. But also like sick people, sometimes you have to have a little bit of pain (shots or even the emotional drain of visiting a people-doctor) in order to feel better (or even survive altogether). My first day experience definitely opened my eyes to the idea that sick cattle are not to be treated the same way as healthy cattle.
Some sick cattle handle the idea and process better than others. Some are so sick, they just kind of look up feebly as if to say “whatever you want to do, fine. I feel so crappy, I don’t want to fight. Can you help me?”. But other cattle are more like myself when I’m a patient- “Hell, NO I don’t want you to check my temperature or force me to eat soup or get a shot. GO AWAY”. These cattle, the ones like me, are the ones that are dangerous. These are the ones like that Hereford I saw during my first 30 minutes on this job. They are the ones who forget about the whole being a normal cow, having a flight zone, behaving like a prey animal thing. These are the ones who will come charging at you with every intention of killing you. Or these are the ones that simply will NOT move into the chute to get their diagnosis and/or medicine.
This causes a lot of frustration. When you are trying to do a good thing, and no one seems to be listening to you saying that what you are doing is, in fact, a good thing, it makes you mad. And yes, we realize that the animal can’t rationalize and we can’t pull it aside and explain that the process will be short and the shot won’t hurt too bad and that soon enough, they’ll be back with their friends. But nonetheless, we just want them to cooperate! The faster and quieter they go through the chute, the less stress on them. This is especially crucial to the severe cases. Cattle that are bloated or just too sick can easily die in the snake while waiting their turn to be doctored and released. We try to get those cattle to enter first, so we can get them in and out as quickly and nicely as possible, but sometimes they dash into the snake in the completely wrong order.
And we have had some die in the chute. Some of these likely would have died within a few hours anyways, but it is still a sinking-stomach situation to have one die while you are trying desperately to make it better. Especially when you know that they were suffering quietly behind an animal that balked and clogged the flow for 20-30 minutes because it was being stubborn and you were struggling to find a humane way to convince it to move forward.
This is where hot shots become especially useful. The hot shot looks like a stick about 3 ft long and has a very dull prong at the tip. Sometimes, just waving the hotshot as an extension of your arm can help guide cattle in the direction you need them to go. Other times, such as when the cattle are already loaded into the snake, it becomes necessary to administer a small jolt of electricity to the backside of the animal. Just as electric collars for dogs, the jolt helps redirect the animal’s brain from one mode of thinking to another. This allows the animal to try something different. (As dogs get shocked when they move forward through the invisible fence, they usually take the jolt as a sign to stop and go back to where they were before the shock). With balking cattle (or backwards-moving cattle), the shock redirects the brain into a forward moving motion (shocking the back of the body makes them move forward away from the source). The jolt only lasts as long as you hold the prong to the animal while pushing the button. In my experience, it takes less than a second of electricity to get the desired effect. The skin may raise on the hide temporarily, but in 3-4 minutes there is absolutely no sign of damage to the animal. The pain of the shock goes away even faster than that: as soon as the prod is lifted. It is a very decent practice and when used correctly, hot shots can literally be a life saver.
Day 1 of the Feedyard: I show up to what I think is the main hospital. I’m not sure though, because my directions for where to check in were kind of vague, and when I walk in, everyone sort of nods my direction but doesn’t seem alarmed or interested in asking if I know what I’m doing there (which I don’t, of course). I finally see the head doctor who hired me and get assigned to the east side of the yard with 2 other guys. I have no clue what is going on because we’re talking about “catches” and so many pen numbers that I can’t keep up. But we finally arrive at a “catch” 3, which turns out to mean one area of the yard.
There are 7 catches: each of the 500+ pens are assigned to one of these area numbers. At each catch there is a hospital, which is a very small room with a heater, counter, minifridge, drugs & doctoring supplies. Just outside the door to each hospital is a snake and chute to run the sick cattle through, and surrounding the hospital and chute are a number of hospital pens.
Anyhow, we arrive at the catch and I’m asked to go run the one steer in a pen through the snake and into the chute. Easy enough. I walk back to the pen and place a hand on the gate latch. The Hereford inside starts running around madly. Now, I know all cattle have different sized flight zones. But I have never met any cattle that can’t handle a human within 100 ft of it. I step inside the pen but stay in the corner diagonally from the steer. He turns and charges me, which is also something new in my experience. He calls off the attack early, so I stay quietly where I am to let him calm down to my presence. He circles around crazily for a few minutes until he runs himself directly into the metal fence post. I swear, I did not even take a step towards the fellow. I watch him and he watches me (looking severely dazed) for a very long minute. He stands directly in front of the fence until, very very slowly, he tips over completely. “Oh My God, I killed it!”
I called for help, and one of the other guys ran over and tried gently shaking it up. The steer was now incredibly cross-eyed and bleeding from its nose/mouth. He took a few staggering steps while trying to attack us, but soon fell back over. His jaw hung broken from his face. I started apologizing and trying to explain that I hadn’t even pressured it. I was told, “It’s okay, I watched. You didn’t do anything wrong, really. Some cattle just aren’t comfortable with people”.
Awesome. My first day, and I nearly kill an animal completely unintentionally, and nearly get taken out myself. I wanted to cry for hurting an animal, and I wanted to yell at him for trying to hurt me. Maybe this job will be harder than I thought.
The day prior to officially starting my job as a vet-tech/doctor/intern, I was required to sit through 8.5 hours of safety videos and packets. While much of this was very routine and rather boring, I do find it important to point out one very large document that was reviewed with us by a manager prior to our signature. It included detailed regulations on how to handle cattle. While some seem obvious, such as no scooping any live animal with the telehandler (like a back-ho), there were also specific areas of the body that were not to be prodded with the hot shot (electric prod). These included genitalia, anus, and face, for example. There was also a note that 90% of all cattle should be able to run through the snake and chute without use of such a device in the first place.
We also watched a 40-minute video made by Temple Grandin, who is a world-renowned animal behavior specialist who designs animal facilities that cause the least possible amount of stress to livestock during handling, processing, and slaughter. She is responsible for most of our facilities’ designs, and she detailed how use this equipment, as well as how to move cattle in a quiet and stress-free manner.
The regulations and guidelines are much more extensive than this post outlines, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the welfare issues discussed and addressed from the very beginning. With some of the awful stories going around the internet and news about beating of animals and misuse of tools, it was a relief to see the company’s strict stance on this matter, and their efforts to make all their employees aware of proper handling techniques and expectations.
So I’ve been having some difficulty keeping my pace with the blog recently. I moved to nowhere, Colorado and being that I just graduated college, I’m plum broke. Which means that I do not have internet at my new apartment. Which makes blogging very challenging. However, I have completed 2 full weeks now at the feedyard, and it has been a tumbling roller coaster of an adjustment. I plan to start typing up blog posts regularly at home, and then stopping by the library to post them, so keep checking in, it’ll be more exciting here soon!
I haven’t been able to keep up my initial momentum in posts. The 14th I got an offer to become an intern at one of the largest feedyards in the world!! A week later, and I have driven across the country, found and moved into an apartment, and life is still moving at a lightning fast pace.
My internship will be a 3 month adventure into the workings of a cattle feedyard. For those who don’t know what this translates to, a feedyard (or feedlot, or CAFO) is the last stop for most mainstream cattle before the slaughterhouse. For 3-6 months, the cattle are kept in large pens and fed a high energy diet. This allows them to gain additional weight and fat (marbling) to add that lovely juicy flavor into your steaks.
One of the biggest reasons I’ve been pursuing a job on a feedyard is because they don’t have a great reputation with the public. In a square mile or so, there can be over 100,000 animals. That doesn’t play into the happy-go-lucky image of Bessie on a big open field, side-ways munching on luscious greens. I’m curious to see how they really work. I can’t believe they are as bad as extremists make them out to be. As I’ve said before, and I know I’ll say it again, the people in the cattle business are fabulous. There is no way they would send the animals they’ve cared for during so many months to a horrible place to spend their remaining time on earth.
The concerns range from environmental to animal welfare to human nutrition and beyond. These feedyards are predominately out west where there is a large area of land, so I’m not sure of all the inner workings yet. My specific job will be working with Herd Health and the hospital area to care for any cattle who arrive or become sick while at the feedyard. I’m really excited to get my hands dirty and start doctoring some (OK, thousands! of) animals!
I’m curious to hear the opinion of anyone reading, concerns, questions, or whatever. My hope through this work experience is not only to further my own education and knowledge of this significant stage of beef production, but to help provide a window for anyone else who is curious about them. I’d be interested to find out what many of you already know about feedlots, and what you think of them so far. I want to be able to answer your questions, discuss your opinions, and hear your feedback. Feel free to email me, comment on the post, or contact me in any other way. I’ll be sure to find an answer for both of us. Also, if you know a lot about them, share that, too! I’m a little nervous about this move and the new job, and I really don’t know what to expect. Clue me in :). And in the meantime, keep checking in because you’ll probably see me exploring my own concerns or delights that maybe you hadn’t considered.