Category Archives: Feedlots
When I graduated in July 2010, I wasn’t one of the lucky ones that had a job offer waiting for me. I knew I wanted to work with beef cattle. They fascinate me. They’re peaceful. They smell nicer than some livestock (and yes, this is important).
I also knew that I eventually wanted to work in Public Relations for the beef industry. It frustrated me that over the course of the last 3 years, my expanding knowledge of Agriculture was not shared by my peers or parents. I showed up home to find a pantry of organics, yet my family had a lot of misinformation that led them to reconstruct our food supply. Friends were turning vegetarian like dropping flies. People asked me why I thought abusing animals in the name of feeding America was ok?….WHAT? People think that? I didn’t know anyone in Agriculture who abused animals, or thought it was OK under any false pretense.
So I decided on feedlots. As I described in “I’m goin in!”, I picked feedlots because of all the parts of the beef industry, that’s the one that seemed to attract the most raised eyebrows. It had the most mystery, even to me. Because the east coast doesn’t have feedlots, our total coverage on the topic at VT was probably about 50 minutes worth of lecture, if you were to add it all together. That didn’t leave me prepared to defend them to anyone, including myself.
So I tried to Google them. Most results included something on “reasons not to eat meat” or “cow hell”. No addresses to be found. Well how was I going to apply to any of them? My stepmom had given me Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking In Pictures” and we had watched the the amazing HBO movie about her journey to feedlots. So my stepmom suggested I call her. Temple Grandin. World famous author, speaker, facilities designer, professor. And what do you know, she actually called me back!! At least twice! Do you have any idea how nerveracking it is to play phone-tag with a mini-celebrity?!
I expressed my worries of being a woman in a man’s world. I told her why I wanted to work on a feedyard, and bashfully admitted I had no idea what positions even existed at such a place. I needed to find out. And I also needed to find out where they hide out so I could send a resume and request a specific position. She told me the book Beefspotter would be helpful. It’s like a $50 feedlot phone book. I heard Colorado was pretty cool, so I flipped to that state and found zillions of listings–big, small, and everything in between.
I called a random feedlot in California to ask the manager some questions so I could have a somewhat educated cover letter. At first he was very suspicious of my curiosity. “Who are you with?” “Well, sir, I’m not really “with” anyone, but I graduated from Virginia Tech and I’d like to ask you about how a feedlot works because I think I’d like to work at one” Then he exploded into laughter.
After looking up some stats about them (it’s easier to google info about specific ones, they don’t hide as easily when you have more info), I mailed a resume and cover letter to any feedlot that had a-come personally recommended to me by someone I knew in VA raising commercial cattle or b-met the list of top 20 employers, etc.
I sent out 18 of these personalized letters and cover letters. I patiently waited 2 weeks for them to arrive on people’s desk before calling to follow up. Most people never answered. One man called me back to say “Well little lady, I’m not hiring, but I thought you deserved a call back. Good luck to you” He was clearly amused, but nonetheless slightly encouraging.
No real call backs. I talked to a friend who had moved to Denver and expressed my frustrations. “I think if they met me, they’d see I was serious!” So, I saved money to go to Colorado. Which was quite a task, considering I was employed as a waitress only 1 day a week. But off to Colorado I went! I sent out another, slightly smaller pool of cover letters and resumes. I had narrowed down which Big Dog I wanted to work for. I wanted one of the biggest. And I wanted it bad. I told them I’d be in the area and available for interviews. And I went. And I waited. And I prayed. And nothing. I called to express some concern I had over the uploading of my cover letter when someone FINALLY actually read it, while I was on the phone, and offered to meet me for a tour. Halleluia! I had a great (4 hour long) interview/tour, and thought things were in the bag. Wrong. I played phone tag with this guy for weeks. He put in a referral. I waited. Nothing. Got a call from the specific yard and did a phone interview. Waited. I did a follow up call again. Waited. Got offered an internship. Very nonchalantly the guy on the other end says, “Oh, yeah. I did talk to my boss and uh, yeah I mean, if you want an internship, I guess you could come out here”.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I had ultimately told the recruiter I was interested in an internship with the possibility of promotion to MT (Management Trainee). Although I technically qualified for MT from the get-go, I thought it would be most beneficial for both parties to do internship first to get a feel for what really happened on a feedlot, and gain credibility before trying to manage people who knew (obviously) much more than I did. And in one very minor, off-hand sentence, this guy changed the direction of my life.
After 5.5 months of putting my all into this job search, I was insanely relieved the great hunt was over.
This year, I am thankful more than years past for our agriculturalists. Our farmers, ranchers, and feedlot workers. Turkey sales absolutely explode this time of year, and while I am not a poultry expert, I am confident that this takes a ridiculously high level of preparation from all parts of the poultry community.
This year, as we were baking our 21-lb turkey (which, by the way, somehow was still raw after 7 hours…it became quite the interesting affair), I reminisced about my time on the feedyard. I spent only one major holiday at this job, but it will leave an impression on me “for always”.
It was Easter Sunday. Of all holidays, this one is not my most favorite. It’s religious significance certainly speaks to me, but the traditions around it aren’t very sentimental. I usually would go home to North Carolina for church and a nice Easter dinner. As kids, we always did Easter baskets, and my mom still gives me one every year. Despite it not being top ranked, I am, across the board, a holiday and tradition fanatic. When I was in 2nd grade, we lived on the 14th floor of an apartment building in Singapore. My mom made Easter Bunny prints from real dirt from our doorway, into the elevator, onto the “14” button, and in our apartment lobby. God bless her. And the people who wondered where the heck dirt came from in the cleanest city in the world.
Anyways, this holiday was different. For one, I actually had to work. A full day. Beginning at 5:30 AM. But being myself, I prepared for the holidays like always. I went to all the local stores trying to find those plastic easter eggs. Then I bought M&Ms and other candy and filled 1 egg for each of my +/- 36 coworkers (I made a list). I figured if we had to work a holiday, we may as well have some small sign that we knew it was going on around us. It really amazed me how well that little gesture went over, considering it wasn’t a real easter basket. Those stupid eggs stuck around our office for months. People just loved them. And I just enjoyed the chocolate 🙂
Secondly, of all jobs on the feedyard, I was on deads. On Easter Sunday. I hated deads. Everyone did, but probably me worst of all. “Being on deads” requires the 1 (maybe 2 but not in this case) people on said duty to drive around in a large telehandler all day, listening to our radio system for people to call in pen numbers where there is a dead steer or heifer. You then pick it up on your forks, bring it to the necropsy area, and then proceed to “cut deads”. Essentially this is an autopsy. No animal caretaker wants dead animals, and it is our job to find out exactly what went wrong so we can handle it as soon as possible. This is an essential job. Nonetheless, it is probably about as grotesque as you are imagining. Maybe more so. It requires all of my 110 lbs to jump in and out of this massive piece of machinery to open/close gates, herd cattle out of way, reel a chain out, tie it to a carcass leg, reel in the chain, bring the body into a fork or bucket, drive it through all sorts of bumps (praying not to have the body bounce off), drop it off, sharpen your knife, and cut the body from nose to anus. You have to break ribs to access the lungs. You have to fling the legs over. You have to examine the insides of the stomach and intestines and heart and everything else. And let me tell you, this isn’t like a science lab where they are all cleaned out with formaldehyde. It takes an incredible amount of strength to complete an autopsy and break bones of 1200lb animals with your bare hands and a 6-in knife. Since I’m not really that muscular, it requires me to basically climb in, on top of, and around, a carcass in order to assure I do it properly.
You go home smelling horrible. Covered in guts. Not really the way you want to go home to cook up a nice easter meal for 1. It was really a disheartening day at first. I am the SLOWEST person on deads because while it takes some people under 10 minutes to determine cause of death, it could take me 40 to even reach the lungs. And it’s EASTER. I mean, you have to cut them, and meanwhile the others have to feed the healthy ones, and still others have to treat the sick ones, so there is plenty to do. But you surely don’t want to DAWDLE on a holiday. But I bucked up and decided to just get into it. Blasted my ipod and went to town. I actually did end up forgetting there was a holiday going on around us, despite my colored easter egg project. Until I was met by 2 coworkers who were frantically trying to reach me to see how many I had left to pick up. They had families to go back home to. I had, in my selfishness, become completely oblivious to the idea that perhaps some of my coworkers were not 1800 miles from their families, and they DID want to cook a nice meal and sit with family or go to church. But instead of leaving me when they finished their daily duties, they stayed and helped me until “the deads” were finished. Even though my only foreseeable plan was to shower and collapse in exhaustion on the couch. And their family probably wouldn’t want to sit next to them at the dinner table until they took at least 3 showers.
And that day, as gross as my experience and description was, encompassed all the reasons every one of us should be thankful to our farmers and agriculturalists this Thanksgiving. Because while we wake up to entertain guests and sit around a long afternoon of eating before collapsing onto the couch after achieving next to nothing, they worked hard not only to prepare that turkey for our oven on regular working days– they were probably working while we watched the post-meal football game. They were doing their work diligently until the job was truly completed. No matter what hour that meant they got home. And their families are probably not sure WHAT time they will get to eat, because raising livestock does not (EVER) go according to any scheduled time slot. And so that worker may miss the family dinner and eat cold thanksgiving dinner. Or the family may politely sit at the table, patiently listening to their growling stomachs, until the cows are happy and full and that missing family member can join them. There are many heroes that are missed during holidays, when their career duties unfortunately must take precedence over quality family time, but let’s not forget some of the most quietly sung heroes-the ones who most directly help us make thanksgiving meal traditions possible in the first place.
Someone moves to fill the syringe with 50 mL’s of dark, syrupy liquid and attaches a 3/4″ needle. Five small injection sites later, a steer leaves the chute with a clang.
*(normal temp is 101.5, so 104.7 as referenced above is considered very sick)
Every day, I inject numbers of sick, fevered* cattle with antibiotics. Cattle that will soon be entering the supermarket as your favorite burger or steak or brisket. By now, every American is well versed in the dangers of overusing antibiotics both in animals and people. Giving your toddler antibiotics for every round of sniffles will make a medicine-resistant germs that will infect your loved one later, and leave them prone to more allergies. Antibiotic residues entering your body through food has been linked to having the same effect (although these studies are still largely inconclusive).
So let’s consider this: Are we creating super bugs that can run rampant through our population, making us miserable and sending medical experts reeling for new drugs to stop the ever-stronger pathogens??
First, we need to understand that there are very similar principles involved with human and animal antibiotic use. Just because we’ve learned antibiotics are NOT the answer to everything, especially viruses which can’t be cured with them anyway, doesn’t mean there is not a place for them. There are times when antibiotics are incredibly useful. Ever had strep throat? Antibiotics are a life-saver! Without taking antibiotics, strep throat poses the risk of becoming bad enough to hospitalize you for kidney damage or heart valve inflammation. Before antibiotics, people died from simple sickness. The same is true in cattle. It is not the answer for everything, but it can ultimately prevent a death by treating an illness before it overtakes the animal’s body or spreads to the entire herd to create an epidemic. And a dose of antibiotics can save significant levels of animal suffering, which I think most human beings would agree is our invaluable responsibility for the animals in our care.
Second, not only do veterinarians monitor the use of antibiotics in food animals, but the FDA is incredibly involved. They do continuous studies to ensure that there are no residual drugs, hormones, or pesticides of any kind entering your body through a steak, hamburger (or veggie!). They work directly with the drug companies to test the meat treated with antibiotics. Over the years, injections have been moved onto the neck (instead of the rear) to help both with bruising the animal and the damage to the meat. These FDA restrictions have also lead to withdrawl times, which are well-known and strictly enforced by every working member on the feedyard. A withdrawl time is set by the FDA and printed on the drug label for easy access. Many steps are taken to ensure no antibiotics are in the cows system at all by the time they are slaughtered:
- Animals are only injected in the neck instead of the rear of the animal. This means that in fact, the more popular cuts of beef (round, steaks, etc) are not ever directly injected with antibiotics. Antibiotics are also injected subcutaneously, or just under the skin, instead of directly into the muscles that you eat.
- Several injection sites are used in order to prevent a high concentration of antibiotics in one region. If the medication is not properly spread out, it can sort of ball up under the skin and does not circulate properly (therefore not being as effective in treating the sickness)
- The withdrawal time (in the case of Bio, ~30 days), means that any animal given Bio absolutely under NO circumstances can leave the yard for that time period, until it is positively known that the animal does not have any trace of antibiotic travelling through their bodies.
- Every animal that is run through the hospital receives a hospital tag. This tag is individual to this animal, and is also entered into a computer database.
- Any animal that receives an antibiotic gets a notch cut out of the ear tag in a specific area to signify which drug has been given, so you can look at the animal and see that they have been treated during their stay on the feedlot
- The computer system tracks the date and dosage of every trip through the chute, whether or not it gets antibiotics
- If an animal has received 3 doses of antibiotics and comes back sick again, it is deemed “Chronic” and will be put down if it becomes too ill/fails to recover. Even feedlots recognize that there is a point to which antibiotics are not doing their job, and continuously treating an animal not only increases risk of it retaining an illness, but also stresses an animal. Unfortunately, if an animal doesn’t get better after our best efforts, the best option is to put the animal out of his misery and continue to protect the people consuming beef daily.
- When a pen of cattle is shipped (to slaughter), all animals of that pen are checked to be sure they are “clear” –they have met every withdrawl time and therefore are not containing any drug residues.
- Any animal that is not clear must be moved to an entirely different pen prior to the ship to ensure that no one accidentally adds them to the truck.
- As the pen ships, it is entered as such in the computer. The computer also checks again for any “Hot” (not met withdrawal times) animals. If after all the human checks, the computer finds that a hot animal is on the truck, the entire truck must be stopped on the highway and turned back to the feedyard, where every animal is unloaded and reloaded only after they have ensured that hot animals have been moved off the loading area into the designated “hot” pen. It is very rare that it ever gets to this point (it hasn’t happened in my 5 months here, and I have only ever heard of 1 instance…and many employees have been around for 10+ years)
So, FINALLY, after years of being in the Ag world/business, I had the opportunity to watch the infamous “Food, Inc” documentary/movie that is out and popular amongst millions of Americans. There were a few major things that stuck out to me in particular as I watched. And after hearing so many stories of people who became vegetarians because of this documentary, I had some pretty high expectations. I tried very hard to go in to this viewing with an open mind. But honestly, after about 5 minutes, this video started losing my confidence–fast. Even still, I like to find the positive in things, and this documentary was no exception.
- The soybeans.
I have to agree that the whole idea of “owning” a seed is really problematic to Agriculture in America. I have heard many stories similar to those in the documentary of farmers losing battles with companies like Monsanto because the genetics have ended up on the farmer’s land. It is amazing to me that many of these cases are won by the big companies. Any person who has taken a basic Biology class should recall that “Tree Sperm” or seeds are spread and fertilized through a variety of methods…but almost all of them require the seeds to travel across long distances of land. Tumbleweeds, wind, birds, etc are all responsible for spreading new plants to different areas. It is absolutely impossible for neighboring farms to keep their particular strains entirely separate. It has nothing to do with being a theif and everything to do with the laws of nature. I hope that farmers and cooperations can come to an understanding and allow for everyone to exist and compete in the market. We do not allow monopolies in this country and I sure hope as we move forward in all areas of business that we enforce the right to a competitive market. I plan to do more research about the truths of this issue and I’ll get back to you.
- The push for people to take interest in what they are eating.
Just in the last 50 years or so, America has become more removed from its sources of food. My great-uncle and great-grandparents (? or some family far in the past) had their own little farm. Not enough to avoid the grocery store altogether, but a few chickens, goats, and vegetables. Even as a younger child, every summer we grew our own vegetables and herbs (I can’t say we still do, but I hope to return to that soon). Nowadays, the thought of picking your own warm eggs or drinking milk fresh off the cow with the cream on the top is just so…old-fashioned. Or even…dirty. What I like about the “hippies” of this country, and documentaries such as Food, Inc. is the idea that maybe the “old-fashioned” had some great wisdom. They had such rich, tasty, homemade foods. “Preserves” were made yearly in recycled glass jars, and “preservatives” had not even a hint of similarity in meaning to today’s food additives. This idea of really taking the time to learn how and where food comes from is still at the very core of today’s agriculturalist/Farmer, and I do think it’s great that more and more everyday American’s are “circling back”, in a way, to become once again familiar with their nourishment.
- Urging people to demand more than just cheap prices.
I feel that there is a great push in this nation and across the globe for people to become more aware of not only what they eat, but how their lifestyle affects everything from business to the environment to international relations. As the Agricultural Revolution has continued, humanity has continued to strive for “more on less”. Let’s look at the invention of the cotton gin. This machine allowed us to produce more cotton on less labor, therefore allowing it to be sold cheaper. The result that was not necessarily foreseen, however, is the effect on required slaves. Instead of reducing the number of slaves needed by having a machine that worked quicker, it provided the opportunity to sell cotton to more of the globe. This, in turn, actually increased the number of slaves needed, to keep up with the new demand. (You can Google this phenomenon, but it is also explained here). Similarly, we have learned how to raise more meat on fewer resources. Instead of only being able to afford meat once a week, you can have meat in your diet once a meal. While this has a great opportunity to have a balanced diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, etc year-round, day or night, wealthy or poor, it also raises new concerns. Are cheap prices and “availability to all!” really the best choice for America? or the Earth? Are we willing to research whether organic or free range or [insert any food buzzword] really is better for not just the environment, but everything else too? It is hard to argue that producing more veggies and meat on less land is the wrong choice, simply because…aren’t we feeding the world?! Aren’t we saving other countries from starvation because we can produce enough food to not only provide for Americans, but for other nations in need? I believe the point is to continue researching, continue studying cause-effect, and continue improving our system so that it is well-rounded, and not just all about making food so incredibly affordable. As we [humankind] are coming to realize, no matter how ingenious we are, we will not be able to sustain and exponential expand in population. How that relatively new realization affects our decisions on Agriculture (and even decisions on human life) should be very interesting to see. Let’s not make it into a war between one side or the other. It is not environmentalist against humanitarian against farmer. It needs to be a collective decision that evaluates each concern. The world is not black and white evil vs good. It is a bunch of grey area compromises.
The Bad and the Ugly:
- “The Farm Fantasy”.
The beginning of this film shows images used in packaging of fields and pastures, dotted with silhouettes of seemingly delighted livestock. And then it uses the phrase “farm fantasy”, and goes on to explain how this is an untruth about Agriculture. I had to laugh out loud. How is this a fantasy? I understand their intention of pointing out that there are “factory farms”, but the existence of such things does not negate the existence of down-home lush green pastures. Do people really buy that? I mean, are there really people in suburbia or metropolitans who have not, on some drastically long and painful family road trip, passed such a beautiful farm as the ones I see daily? These “fantasy” farms absolutely do exist.
Little pieces of paradise dotted around the nation. And let me share something else with you. If you’ve noticed them becoming few and farther between, you can probably blame your own neighborhood just as equally as a large company like Smithfield. Because your need (and mine, for that matter…I grew up in suburbia too you know) for a nice lawn and 3 car garage and 4 bedrooms for 2 people type of home has grown some fabulous neighborhoods. And at least in North Carolina/Virginia, many of these neighborhoods are called things like “Fairfield Farm”. Do you know why that is? Because your pretty little brick house was built by a contractor who bought out that little all-American farming family and put a row of mailboxes on what USED to be Fairfield Farm. It’s tough cookies for any small business, and that includes small farmers. There’s a buy-out price for everything, and unfortunately, that includes “fantasy” farms. But they haven’t all been bought out yet, and don’t forget that.
- Very Talented Editing
This is something that is in no way new to the world of journalism, sensationalism, book-writing, etc. Call it “persuasive writing”, call it whatever. The idea is to show bits of truths to create a specific effect and achieve a certain goal. While it is very successful at accomplishing the goal at hand, the viewer/reader/audience must be very careful before assuming that these bits of truths are the whole. entire. truth. As I watched Food, Inc, I noticed that I was feeling a rising sense of injustice. I kept looking over to my brother and friend and saying, “Feedlots don’t LOOK like that!” “It isn’t LIKE that!”. I didn’t mean to say “they staged all of this and nothing about it is true”. What I mean is, the way the documentary is filmed, you walk away feeling a certain way. Because I have experience in feedlots, I shall focus on that part because I can promise and give my word, 100%, that I know what I’m talking about. The movie never REALLY go into great discussion about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of a feedlot. But didn’t you walk away feeling that? Didn’t you think to yourself, “Ew. Look, they can’t even move. They’re like little sardines. How dreadful”. The editing was very clever. This is similar to what you saw:
Lots of cattle. Shoulder to shoulder. Barely enough space to turn around. This picture is small and not of great quality, but the point is still obvious: overcrowded and miserable. Who would want to live on one of those? How do we allow food to be grown that way? Poor cows. This is a picture of a small truth of feedlots, as shown by documentaries such as Food, Inc, that lead you to believe an untruth.
Now let’s look at the whole truth of this image:
True, they are still on dirt. But they absolutely have the space to leave each other’s sides. They could certainly get to the feed by spreading down the bunks on that entire side of the pen, instead of bunching in that corner. They have friends (cattle are a herding species, and they naturally aggregate), they have a nice view of green, they have readily available food and water. And they definitely, definitely are not packed shoulder to shoulder. I’m sure you can see which part of the 2nd picture I cropped in order to make the first. Similarly, I’m sure Food, Inc cameramen used a close-up of the cattle to silently depict a crowded, awful cow hell. They neglected to show you images of their open surroundings. They left out the visual information that these cattle could clump and unclump on their own accord at any point in time. While the documentary claims to want to expose the whole truth to you, it really doesn’t do that, does it? It does a great job of showing you bits of the true story. It does a great job of opening your mind to the possibility that food production is not what you once thought. And now I aim to do the same. Perhaps food production is also not what you believed it to be after watching this film. Does this second image change your opinion of the first?
- The poor mother who lost her child to a hamburger
“Any foods likely to be contaminated with pathogens should be heated to 160°F; at this temperature, most pathogens are killed very quickly. Check the temperature with a thermometer to be certain the food is fully cooked.”
— You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness – [a very detailed and helpful resource released by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho that can be found here ]
After I learned that bottle calves had been an option on the yard, I also learned that we currently had two. They are now around 400 lbs a piece, and eating on their own. When they get big enough, they will join another lot and become full-fledged members of the feedyard. I actually should have been able to pick them out much sooner, because I had been in a pen with them a few days ago. While there are many heartwarming aspects to bottle feeding a calf, there are a few negatives to bottle babies. One is that they are just plain goofy looking. They have very large barrel bellies. I asked why it was that they look so very odd, and was told that many bottle calves never really learn how to graze on feed like normal cows. They grew up being feed a bottle on human scheduling. When they graduate to real feed, they still are in the habit of gobbling up large quantities of feed at once, and then not eating until their next big, hurried meal. Some grow out of it eventually, once they watch other cows around them and realize that the food isn’t going to disappear with the feedtruck. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t seem to harm them. It just distends their bellies in a cartoonishly adorable sort of way.
One of the biggest negatives for us working on a feedlot is the fact that they do not follow normal cow rules. Just as I discussed with sick animals, any cow that doesn’t follow the Cow Rules is a royal pain in the butt. Bottle babies grew up being up-close-and-personal with humans. They are not afraid of us. They have no flight zone. And therefore, if you have to move animals like Martha and Matilda, it is nearly impossible. Walking towards them will not push them forwards. It makes them come gallivanting over to you and lick you like a puppy. While this can be very cute, it is absolutely useless when trying to work cattle. Also, after dealing with so many crazed animals that come after you with evil intentions, it can be alarming to have any 400+ lbs of animal barreling towards you.
Although they aren’t great for easy management, and the success stories of bottle babies are few and far between, I have found that the best therapy for a long, hard day is to visit pen 89 and wait for the red and black faces to come over for a head scratching. And nothing quite puts a smile on your face like a goofy, super-long tongue slobbering on your arm, or a curious nose snotting on your jacket.
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.
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!