Handling cattle with patience and finesse offers plenty of rewards.
Whoever believes nice guys always finish last never studied the economic advantages of feeding cattle that are managed with stress reduction in mind.
"We feel like any time we can reduce stress of any kind on the animal we will increase our efficiency, so it makes sense to design facilities that reduce stress," says Jack Lawless, manager of Imperial Beef, Imperial, NE. "Our pens are designed for cattle to flow out of them. We try not to hurry the cattle. They're also designed for as few people as possible to do the job."
In fact, Imperial Beef was built from the ground up with a keen eye leveled at reducing stress. Moreover, since this yard - 23,000 one-time capacity - opened its gate in 1998, they continue to fine-tune their designs.
As an example, Lawless points to the load-out box for fed cattle. In a nutshell, the flow through Imperial's load-out facility was less than they desired. So, they revamped it so cattle first enter a half-snake. At the end of the curve, thinkingthey've found an escape hatch, they turn and go right on the truck.
"It's worked better than we ever anticipated," says Lawless. "With what we're doing now we have almost completely reduced dark cutters." They've also reduced bruising.
For perspective, Temple Grandin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University and one of this nation's most respected livestock facility designers, took a look at the impact feedlot cattle handling has on bruising. In one study, she found that cattle from feedlots classified as rough handling ended up with 15.5% discountable bruises, versus the 8.35% discountable bruises that came from feedlots classified as quiet handlers.
Incidentally, in that same study, cattle sold on a live basis endured a discountable bruise rate of 14%, while those sold in the beef came in at 8%.
Black And White Basics "There are two ways to handle livestock," says Lee Reeve, owner and manager of Reeve Cattle Co., Garden City, KS. "One is the ram and jam method. The other is the quiet way where you let cattle find their way. We've found that when you handle cattle more gently, they perform better, no matter what you are doing," he says.
Reeve didn't just wake up one day and decide to handle cattle one way instead of another. His family started out believing quiet handling was its own reward and has evolved in that direction ever since.
"We try to think about what we're doing," says Reeve. "For us it's just a continual evolution and trying to get where we want to be. We're better today than we were five years ago, and we were better five years ago than we were 10 years ago."
He admits it is tough to ferret out specific gains garnered in a feedlot, given all the variables that impact performance. But, Reeve adds, "Starting out, we know we'll have fewer bullers and better performance handling them this way."
Lawless concurs: "The only way we can monitor all of this is with gain and performance, and we're monitoring that from day to day... If a pen isn't handling well one day, even in the best facility, it shows up immediately in the feed bunk."
In fact, when Grandin compared feeding performance of cattle, based on their temperament score - another way of looking at stress - she found the calmest cattle gained 0.42 lb./day more than the flightiest ones (Table 1).
"When you own all of the cattle in the yard like we do, you reap the rewards from any efficiency you can develop. That's why we do this, it makes us money," says Reeve.
Of course, the same is true in custom yards. Lawless explains, "We try to get everybody here to understand that the goals and the importance of how the cattle perform affect our bottom line. We try to make them understand how important their job is to that bottom line."
Plus, Grandin points out, "Handling cattle right doesn't cost anything."
Searching For Opportunity When it comes to figuring out whether current facilities and handling practices are leaving dollars on the table, Reeve says, "I would recommend for anyone to have a Temple Grandin come in and look at their facilities and procedures."
After all, when you stare at the same forest every day, it can be tough to see some of the trees that might be limiting opportunity. "These people that see lots of cattle and lots of ways that cattle are handled can be valuable," says Lawless.
For instance, Grandin says, "I went into a feed yard recently and they were ready to tear up their processing facility because they said they couldn't get cattle to flow through it smoothly enough. The only problem was that it was too dark."
She asked the crew to pry open an overhead door that looked as if it hadn't budged since Noah dried his whiskers. The extra light solved the problem.
"Light is so important to cattle movement," emphasizes Grandin, explaining that it is often at the root of problems in the processing barn.
She's advised more than one manager to rip off some of their tin and replace it with translucent plastic skylights, which provide light without shadows. Finding and tying up bits of dangling chain - another common impediment - can often also yield dramatic results.
"I've been amazed at some of the places I've visited, wondering how they could do something the way they are doing it," Grandin says. "But, bad becomes normal when you have nothing to compare it to."
At another stop, the feedlot manager wanted her to help figure out what kind of new or redesigned squeeze chute he needed. He couldn't get cattle pushed through the one he had. Grandin took a look and moseyed out back.
She took the hotshots away from the folks bringing the cattle, filled the crowd pen half-full, then only brought small bunches at a time. "It was amazing how that squeeze chute started to fix itself," says Grandin.
Across the board, Grandin believes electric prods are a major impediment to cattle flow and handling efficiency. She suggests replacing them with paddles or flags for driving tools. She favors keeping only one hotshot - on the vaccine table and only to be used as a last resort.
Moreover, Grandin says, "One thing I'm concerned about are these head extension devices on squeeze chutes." She suggests shortening the extension bars and then backing the cattle up a step once they're in the chute (see July BEEF, page 22). That's what Reeve does. When cattle go in calm, they stay calm.
Even without inviting folks in from the outside, feedlots can audit their own handling practices. "I think first a feedlot can go in and just do some scoring," says Grandin. She says there are many measurable stress indicators.
For instance, she says, a good goal just starting out is to strive for 98-99% of the cattle through the processing chute without using an electric prod. In 80% of the yards she has worked with, she says she quickly achieves that goal without any facility modification. The other 20% of the time, either facility design, but most frequently, poor lighting, must be corrected to achieve the goal.
Polishing Both Sides Of The Equation "There are two parts to all of this. One is the design and flow of the facility, and the other is the implementation by those at the facility," explains Reeve. "You can have the best people in the world, but if you don't have a facility that cattle flow well through, it won't work; and vice versa."
Actually the buck always starts and stops with people. "A lot of it is that managers have to change their paradigm. They have to decide this is something that they feel is important to do," says Reeve, explaining the commitment must come from the top down.
When that happens, folks start seeing the world differently. "I think the whole industry is more geared to looking at the quality of the end product and putting the right product out there for the consumer. I know we are," says Lawless.
"There is more focus on handling in the cattle feeding industry today, and I think part of that is because it is so competitive. Anything you can do to improve the bottom line is worth looking at," he adds.