My View From The Country

Okay, I’ll Say It: The Beef Industry Has An Animal Welfare Problem

Failing to address animal abuse problems, regardless of how rare they are, jeopardizes the entire beef industry.

They say the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one. I received a lot of comments a few weeks ago following publication of my piece on an undercover activist’s video depicting abuse of young dairy calves on a Colorado calf growing farm. This week, another video surfaced; this one from a pig operation in Oklahoma.

The comments I received regarding the Colorado case took me to task for understating the problem, and not calling out those where the problems are disproportionately directed from. Their point was simple – almost all of these revelations of abuse come from very specific entities within our industry, the first being the dairy industry. And we’re doing everyone a disservice by not calling a spade a spade and dealing directly with the heart of the problem.

I’ll admit that their words stung a little bit because I know they’re right. The problem with being a true fan of this industry and an active participant in it is my tendency to not want to offend anyone. I hate painting any group with too broad of a brush because the majority within that group are usually very good people with good motives.

As I’ve said, the vast majority of producers are great people, but the reality is that a hugely disproportionate number of problems associated with downer cows, drug residues, and animal welfare in general can be associated with the dairy industry. Perhaps it’s because of that sector’s reliance on hired labor, part of which doesn’t share the animal husbandry ethic. Perhaps it can be explained by the almost corporate or assembly-line approach that characterizes that industry.

 

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Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that the ethos we hold so dear regarding animal welfare in the cow-calf industry just isn’t as strong in the dairy industry. We’ve seen similar breakdowns in the poultry and pork industry, where employees aren’t vested in the animal production system in the same way that we typically see in cow-calf production.

The bottom line is that while there’s nothing inherently wrong with large-scale animal production, the system is far more likely to break down when workers are employed who don’t inherently share the love of animals and don’t have a vested interest in an operation from an ownership, profit, or value standpoint. It’s a failure of management, a failure of supervision, and a failure of education.

Some of these operations are failing in replicating the mindset, values and culture that have always been the foundation of our industry. Thus, it’s no surprise that the other problems we’ve seen regarding animal abuse are primarily from situations that reflect this same dynamic, whether it’s in sale barns, feedyards, etc.

As an industry, we must embrace the fact that this is a nexus – a point where animal welfare issues tend to arise. This is where our industry has occasionally failed. I’ve especially been guilty of standing up for the overwhelming majority of producers who do a great job, and I’ve failed to recognize that our industry responsibility is to uphold a zero-tolerance policy.

These instances of abuse are unacceptable and unworthy of such a great industry as ours. Ethics and morals, as well as economics, dictate that animal welfare should be every producer’s top priority. Failing to address these isolated problems, regardless of how rare they are, jeopardizes our entire industry.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 13

Dewayne Brake (not verified)
on Nov 27, 2013

Troy,

I never thought I would hear that from you, or from ANY of the disciples, of the Beef Industry! You have given me a glimmer of hope that the Industry can admit their problems and bring about change! I sincerely hope that this is a genuine beginning of a search for the facts and solutions, instead of the continual regurgitation of propaganda. There issues are adding up, quickly! I am glad that you have "joined" the team!

Terry Ward (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2013

Thank you for this.

Briscoe Boy (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2013

I agree that this area (dairy) of the beef industry has some big problems especiallly with handling of newborn weak calves and older cows, but often see pictures, even posted on your site, of cowboying calves and dragging them to the fire for branding; only creates welfare concerns and decreases the hide value by $13.58, acording to the latest Beef Quality Audit. I agree that it may be a fun workday for family, neighbors, and friends (I've been there), but we need to move on to better methods of animal handling. You can still be a rancher or cowboy and use a calf table and ear tags. The benifits are beyond comprehension.

on Nov 29, 2013

I'm a cow-calf man but being in Argentina I'll never be a competitor. At any rate, I'm glad to hear these words. If anyone can describe the decline of a great beef-eating nation it's me.

If US consumers get the idea that beef is evil, you're done.

You don't all have to go boutique and grass-fed and cow-spa Kobe ...but, in my humble opinion, you have to come to terms with trying to raise cattle as if they were chickens.

Beef deserves a premium price but it will never get it if it under assembly line pressures.

Raise less beef and more hell?

Mike

Sean P. O. MacCath-Moran (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2013

On the one hand, I'm as glad as the next empathetic person to see this issue being addressed. On the other, it *is* a rather bizarre state of mind, isn't it?

i.e. Folks that want to know that animals are raised humanely and treated with care, which is to say that they're interested that the rights of the creatures be respected, but at the same time not acknowledging the right of those individuals not to be needlessly killed, which would seem to be a much greater violation of those beings than the mere mistreatment over which their concern was initially expressed

Does that not seem like an oddity to you?

Doug (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2013

Please explain. Under what circumstances are "needlessly killed"?

Sean P. O. MacCath-Moran (not verified)
on Dec 8, 2013

Well... Any time an animal is killed in order to eat it, it's "needless killing", right? What I mean by this is that humans absolutely do not need to eat animals, and they're demonstrably healthier when not doing so.

After all, there have been healthy, thriving vegetarians and vegans for as long as there have been humans. Some were so due to moral or ethical concern, others due to resource utilization issues, others due to cultural taboos. All other factors being equal, the veg(etari)ans have thrived, and continue to do so.

For some more recent historical examples of vegans, we can look at Pythagoras and the subsequent the "Pythagoreans" (as vegans were called for the following 1300 years), along with a plethora of like-minded contemporaries (e.g. goo.gl/lgDBL). Buddhists, Jainists, et al., have been doing grand as veg(etari)ans since around the 6th century BCE. Prior to all this, there's compelling reason to believe that most people were vegan anyway (ref. goo.gl/3QZWDg). There are many more examples, but the point is that veganism is clearly a viable option in the present day.

In fact, when humans consume the flesh, secretions, et al., of animals, it causes diseases in them at a much, much higher rate than it does in those who don't. These consist primarily of a range of heart diseases and cancers (colorectal and breast in particular), but include a long list of fairly nasty ailments. Given the increased risk of contracting these illnesses and that consuming animals is obviously not a necessity for humans, it seems clear that this means doing so is actually less health-some rather than more so.

Does that make sense in your view?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2013

Unbranded calves get stolen. That's a bona fide fact. While that's not the issue, the fact remains that we have to adhere to best management practices and be gentle with our animals. And we have to be ever diligent to help explain to our customers why we do what we do. The majority is on our side. The loud, vocal minority that is against everything from coal mining to logging to ranching to hunting, we have to keep beating them back. We have to work to expose this movement for what it is. And we have to, in my opinion, distance ourselves from trash bags that abuse animals either for propaganda purposes or out of ignorance or nastiness.

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2013

Milton Friedman espoused - "the goal of capitalism is to maximize the return to the investor, ANYTHING less is socialism".

Management? Supervision? Education? Gosh Troy those things will cost money!! What if wages had to raise pay to get competent people willing to do the work? That will just eat into the bottom line.

If ag policed itself instead of immediately becoming indignant and defending bad actors among us perhaps there would be less need for more regulations?

avatar (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2013

Troy: In all those instances where problems are more common (dairy, poultry, hogs.and even feedyard) two things are common. Confinement and daily tending. In cow- calf, and stocker grazing, this is not true, so there is simply less opportunity for animals to be abused, assuming they're not overstocked to the point of emaciation. Am I saying confinement production should be eliminated? Definitely not. Just pointing out it's harder to abuse something that's out grazing.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 1, 2013

Dairymen are just that dairymen. We need to call them milkmen. They are not cattlemen. Bull calves are just by-products and they treat them that way. Know they want to breed their cows to beef bulls to get more money for there by-product what is up with that.

Steve C. (not verified)
on Dec 3, 2013

Great comments from readers, Troy. Gives hope for the cattle industry I haven't seen before.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 3, 2013

Interesting article, Troy, and points up the problems with dairy, pork, and poultry production most have long known can develop with more hired workers and less family involvement in day to day care of animals. Such workers often do not have any personal feelings for the job other than as a job. No 'way of life' involved for too many of them, who generally do not live on the premises, as do many hired workers for beef cattle.

Re. the branding claims: I've seen calves so delicately roped and 'dragged to the branding fire, branded, castrated, and vaccinated and released to re-join the cows nearby that they resume nursing and other than being frightened for a few minutes separation, suffer no ill effects other than minor soreness for a couple of days. That can all be achieved very quickly, when done by competent ranch folks. While I've had no experience with calving tables, the competence of the person doing the work is vital to the good outcome for the animal. Branding in areas of large pastures, communal pastures, and especially in wide open range conditions, is still a true necessity. Possibly it can change, but we don't have the accurate means to maintain proof of ownership. Those criticizing profit probably haven't had to sign many checks at the bottom, as opposed to endorsing them on the back!

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contribur Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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