Sometimes, for a number of reasons, we get heifers shipped to the yard that are bred and pregnant. As a feedyard, my company will preg-check all incoming heifers and then administer oxytocin and lutylase to the pregnant females in order to induce contractions. Essentially, we are causing an abortion in all pregnant females that enter the yard. When I first told my mom, she seemed a little disturbed at this idea. “Why?! Why can’t you keep them?”
The truth is, there are many problems posed by pregnant females coming to a feedyard. First, most of the heifers that arrive pregnant were bred far too young. They have not grown big enough to carry a calf of a healthy weight, and they do not have wide enough hips/pelvic area to birth any sized calf easily. It is highly likely that if left alone, either heifer, calf, or both will die in labor. For another thing, feedyards are not really set up to act as cow-calf operations. We don’t really have a place for babies. Our fences have large gaps and if a calf were to escape, they would likely be struck by one of the many trains or highway vehicles near the yard. Third, many of the heifers may not even give birth during the months they will spend at a feedlot (They may arrive with 6 months scheduled on the yard, be 3 weeks into term, and have another 2-2.5 months left of pregnancy by the time the end of their stay on the yard-and trip to slaughter-is scheduled). Since you cannot really slaughter a pregnant animal, we have to find out what to do.
The nature of a feedyard is to fatten animals to be fit & tasty for human consumption. If you feed a pregnant, or even nursing animal, it simply will not grow the way we hope for. As you cow-calf people know, pregnant and lactating cows require a much different diet because so much of their energy and resources go to providing for the offspring. Mothers often lose a significant amount of weight while nursing calves-something that is entirely counter-productive to the point of being on a feedlot. Therefore, there aren’t many great options. The company as a business cannot turn a profit if they keep pregnant females around for all of their gestation time (however long or short that may be from the time they arrive). They would also need the facilities and supplies and vaccinations and feed appropriate for raising little ones. Unfortunately, it just isn’t plausible for a feedyard to act as a maternity ward when someone mistakenly sends us a pregnant animal.
The tricky part to all of this is when a heifer is aborted late enough in her gestation that the calf is born alive. Sometimes, the calves are intensely premature when this happens, with underdeveloped hooves, no hair, and little pink bodies. There is no way for them to survive, no matter how miraculous it is that they’ve come out breathing. I find this to be the hardest part of my days. It’s heartbreaking to know that a tiny animal is fighting to stay alive when all the odds are against it living. It makes you wish it had been stillborn. It makes you wish you had the resources to BE a maternity ward and skip the abortion stage. Reality is really hard sometimes. And the circle of life is hard to accept even when you don’t have a hand in making an end come prematurely. Even for the calves who are born late in gestation and come out looking relatively “normal”, they are always undersized (about 2/3 to 1/2 the desired weight of a healthy calf). These calves may get up, nurse, and look lively, but they still face a very bleak outcome. Their mothers rarely have produced enough milk to support even a small calf. Their immune systems aren’t great, and most will slowly starve to death or die from a disease.
Before I started working on the feedyard, they had tried to save these babies despite the odds. They made a makeshift pen that housed about a dozen of these calves. They started with around 12, and ended up with 2. That’s with an intense bottle feeding regimen and lots of attention. Not great odds. There is no substitute for a healthy, fully grown mother with plenty of milk and colostrum to provide to the young one. Unfortunately, bottle feeding these calves is also outrageously expensive and time-consuming. And since nearly all of these calves die no matter what human help they receive, the feedlot has decided (for now) that instead of taking the chances of prolonging a calf’s suffering until it slowly dies on it’s own, calves born on the yard will be euthanized.
This subject is one that I’m not really sure how to best write about because it is so difficult to accept. For everyone. There are very few people on the yard that will carry out this duty with calves. Even though there are several people who believe it is our best option, no one anywhere wants to be responsible for the death of a baby. During one of my days in Colorado, we pulled a calf that was alive, but several deformed. His tongue was so swollen from the stressed delivery that he couldn’t breathe easily. We called in one of the few people trained to euthanize animals on the yard. Even though he knew the animal was suffering, it took him several minutes to compose himself enough to help the animal out of his pain. Even though he knew death was imminent and euthanization actually was the humane option, I assume it takes a lot of muster. Like I said, no one wants to kill a baby. During any calf euthanization that I have witnessed, the person carrying it out walks away with a very tightly set jaw and a grave face of pain. No one likes to think about it, and no one likes to do it.
Maybe there are better solutions to be had in the future. Maybe we could refuse to buy any pregnant animals. This would be difficult, since many farmers keep their bull running with their females year-round, and therefore are unaware of when or if anything has been bred. It would also require new cattle to the feedyard to endure more tests and processing upon their first hours of arrival, which statistically leads to more sickness and death. I’m not defending the idea that abortion is the answer to a business problem, but it is important to keep in mind that food production, vegetable or animal or otherwise, IS a business. The key is to accept it as a business, and then to be innovative in improving it in years to come. Make it the best that it can be, and include all the passion and heart that we can offer it. I think all agriculturalists have come to accept that farming is not solely a tradition. There is room for technology and changing practices that help animal welfare, food safety, and economic outcome. And there are people every day that are coming up with new plans and new tactics for dealing with difficult issues such as this one. Animal welfare has come exponentially far in just the past 5 years. Farmers and ranchers have always wanted the best for their animals, and finally there are more programs and research to back that up and provide these people better options, better education for interacting with their livestock, and firmer laws to enforce them. Let’s continue pushing forward.