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.
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)
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.
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.
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.