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Animal Rights

Animal welfare: Industry must contend with welfare concerns

Written by Saige Albert

Loveland, Colo. – With animal activists consistently threatening the beef industry based on the idea that cattle are being mistreated, more consumers are making meat-purchasing decisions based on how animals were raised and cared for.

“Society has identified concerns with animal welfare, particularly for cattle,” said Jason Ahola, Colorado State University beef management systems associate professor. “At land-grant universities, we are learning more information about welfare so we can get a better handle on the subject in the beef cattle industry.”

Ahola addressed attendees at Range Beef Cow Symposium XXIV, held in Loveland, Colo. in mid-November.

Public concerns

Ahola noted that 65 percent of the U.S. public noted that they are concerned about welfare of animals in a Kansas State University study.

“We can relate to that,” Ahola said, “but its more complicated.”

The survey gave consumers a series of statements and asked them to agree or disagree.

Only 57 percent of the public disagreed with the statement, “Low beef prices are more important than the well-being of cattle.” The remaining 43 percent did not disagree.

“Similar in another statement read,‘I believe that cattle producers face a trade-off between profitability and animal welfare,’” Ahola said. “Only 20 percent of public respondents disagreed, and almost 40 percent of producers did not disagree.”

“How are we addressing this as an industry?” he asked.

Addressing welfare

To address the concerns of consumers, Ahola mentioned that checkoff dollars have been designated to look at the beef cattle industry as well as welfare concerns.

“The first is related to nutrition and other care,” he said. “This is industry-wide. A few things that came up were abrupt weaning and diseases due to high concentration diets, such as acidosis or liver abscesses.”

The second area of concern being addressed by the checkoff is health and lameness in cattle, as well as respiratory issues.

“Third, the fact that there are painful procedures done in beef cattle, like castration, dehorning and branding, without pain mitigation is being researched,” Ahola commented. “Winter weather is a concern. Just the fact that we have cattle and they are outside is something else we hear concerns about.”

Social interactions between animals are also being researched, according to consumers.

“Commingling animals, such as through auction, may be a welfare concern, whether that is related to stress or health,” he said, adding that transportation is also included as a social interaction concern.

Finally, the last point brought up is slaughter, described by Ahola as the process of rendering an animal unconscious and bleeding it out.

Welfare organizations

While producers are addressing these concerns through the beef checkoff and research, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has also pursued its own line of welfare guidelines.

“About five years ago, HSUS came out with a document that identified their concerns about calves in the beef industry,” Ahola said.

Reading from the document, he said, “While many other commercially-produced animals used in agriculture, such as pigs and chickens, are raised in indoor facilities, young calves in the beef industry are largely permitted to roam outdoors, which is a substantial welfare improvement.”

“That was somewhat of a pat on the back by HSUS to the beef industry,” Ahola added, also noting that HSUS criticized the industry for “painful and stressful events, especially when experienced concurrently.”

The painful and stressful events they are referring to are branding, castrating and tagging. Dehorning may also fit into the equation.

Painful procedures

“The biggest concerns are these practices,” Ahola said, noting that HSUS is concerned about if the practices are done and how they are done, including whether pain mitigation is used. “There are two ways to mitigate pain. At the time the procedure is done, we can use anesthesia or pain relief.”

However, currently the Food and Drug Administration approves no drug for pain relief in beef cattle.

“Even if we acknowledge that one of our procedures might be painful, by law, we don’t have a way of mitigating the pain,” he added. “There are products that are used, legally, though.”

Banamine, for example, may be used, but it is not labeled for pain mitigation, and extra label drug use is not legal, except under exceptions in the Animal and Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA).

Castration

One painful procedure of concern, castration, is identified as a concern by HSUS.

“A survey from Kansas State University asked producers if they castrated male calves within the first three months of age, and about 55 percent do,” Ahola explained, adding that castrating younger calves is less painful, according to some research.

Nearly 33 percent noted that they perform the procedures later or without pain control, and only nine percent utilized third party verification.

“Generally most of us are castrating, branding and dehorning without pain mitigation,” he added. “Consumers are concerned, and we don’t have a labeled drug to address the point.”

Slaughter

Though there are concerns with slaughter, Ahola noted that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978 and the Animal Welfare Act, which has been in existence since 1966, are in place.

“These are enforced at packing plants by vets and in sectors,” he continued. “There are some rules that also apply to sale barns.”

Temple Grandin’s work in packing plants has helped to defray animal welfare concerns and postpone other regulations in this arena.

Measuring welfare

“Historically we have measured welfare based on things like animal performance,” Ahola said, adding the consumers do not believe this standard is appropriate for identifying welfare.

“The challenge is that these things are founded based on animal handling,” Ahola continued.

Measures like chute score based on escape behaviors and head movement while procedures are being performed are also used.

“We try to use these in addition to pen behavior where we look at if animals are lying down, if their intake changes, if they are bawling or other things,” he said.

“The beef industry should take the lead on addressing this issue,” Ahola said. “Data suggests several procedures are painful, and there is increasing evidence. How do we address a consumer and tell them that we are trying to do things in the least painful manner? And how do we address pain?”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..