From discerning consumers who want to enjoy beef “guilt free” to animal activists who try to create doubt about our food and those who produce it, the dynamics are complex in today’s food production system. At the very core of animal agriculture, however, is something that both producers and rural practitioners engage in and can improve upon each and every day, and that is animal welfare.
The Right Thing
“Animal welfare is animal husbandry,” reminds Dan Thomson, DVM, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s the understanding that animal welfare improves not only the health and productivity of an animal, he says, but more than likely an operation’s profitability.
“The other reason we promote animal welfare is because it’s the right thing to do.”
At every opportunity Dr. Thomson, a third-generation bovine veterinarian, encourages producers to work with their veterinarian and get him or her on their farm. “A veterinary client-patient relationship is hugely important,” he advises. Likewise he encourages veterinarians to incorporate animal welfare practices, such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) and its assessments, into their practices.
In his editorial in the September 2012 issue of BEEFVet, he points out that BQA is a “natural fit” for the veterinary profession to provide as a service to its clients.
He adds, “Veterinary colleges are starting to incorporate BQA certification as part of their beef production medicine curricula and are using the assessment tools in their teaching hospitals.”
“The veterinarian is a key piece of this,” agrees Ryan Ruppert, senior director of Beef Quality Assurance for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “They have the knowledge, training and connections to make sure that all the different interactions provide the best possible solution for the animal and the best meat experience for the consumer. The veterinarian is the consumers’ safeguard to assure the product they buy is as safe as possible.”
He adds that Beef Checkoff funded market research shows consumers overwhelming believe in the integrity and ability of veterinarians, similar as they do medical doctors.
BQA involves training for best management practices for antibiotic residue avoidance, food safety and animal welfare. The most recent expansion of the industry’s quality assurance program, developed through the Beef Checkoff, is the creation of cow-calf, stocker and feedlot self-assessment tools which are carried out at the grass-roots level.
“The assessments are for managers and owners to look at their operations to see where they can make improvements and things better,” says Ruppert. “Total quality management for beef quality assurance, which is what BQA is founded on, is about continuous improvement.” We’re never at our destination; we can always do better in the creation of a better, safer food product for the consumer.
Furthermore, these plans act as checklists and records. In the event there is a claim of abuse or neglect against the feedlot, cow-calf or stocker operation, a farmer or rancher can check their notebook or file, Dr. Thomson says, to show the exact procedures that employees have been trained to follow by veterinarians, nutritionists and others.
A Vision for Welfare
Dr. Dave Sjeklocha carries out the BQA Feedlot Assessment with processing crews at four feedyards and one calf yard owned by Cattle Empire, LLC near Satanta, KS. The only staff veterinarian, Dr. Sjeklocha is the operations manager for animal health and welfare here, overseeing some 240,000 head of cattle.
Dr. Sjeklocha is very passionate about animal welfare. He claims that misconceptions about our industry being passed around by animal rights groups is one reason he got “fired up” about this issue. “One of the big issues we’re faced with is getting the message out that we do care for the livestock we are raising,” he says.
“I have to give Cattle Empire a lot of credit; in my opinion, they’re some of the most visionary people I’ve ever met. They see down the road that it’s going to be more important to relay this message to the end consumer.”
Cattle Empire is one of the largest family-owned commercial cattle feeding operations in the U.S., with Paul Brown starting the tradition in 1978. When this family decided to bring on a staff veterinarian, they desired to hire someone who had a real interest in animal welfare, and Dr. Sjeklocha, who already served as their consulting veterinarian, was a good fit.
“The Browns have been very supportive of allowing me to implement a lot of these programs,” he says. With processing crews, Dr. Sjeklocha has really focused on handling cattle on arrival through revaccination and reimplant processes.
Dr. Sjeklocha reports the assessment has been “very exciting” to put to work in the feedyard. “You can tell progress and you can see regress. It’s a great tool, and they (employees) like to see it.”
With the electric prod, for example, his crews were initially nervous about decreasing its use to less than 10%. He reports, however, that most of their crews have gotten to where it’s no longer needed. “They had to put away some of the paradigms they had in their mind, and figure out a new way of working cattle.”
The cattle are quieter now and he can tell the crews talk amongst themselves. “They just figured out how to work around cattle. When they discovered they weren’t going to be able to use the electric prod as a crutch, that’s when it began clicking for them.”
He adds, “There’s more job satisfaction, I’m convinced of that. The people enjoy their work a lot more.”
Dr. Sjeklocha first started working with crews and carrying out assessments while in a southwest Kansas consulting practice. His take is, “There are a lot of bad habits that people pick up over time. A lot of this is just developing good and breaking old habits.”
Crews are scored when carrying out the handling portion of the assessment, and afterward they discuss how to match or beat it, Dr. Sjeklocha says. Through this whole process, he’s also seen other benefits such as improvements in implant scores because cattle are calmer in the chute.
“If you make good animal handling a habit, it just comes natural,” Dr. Sjeklocha says. He adds, “There’s many things I appreciate about Cattle Empire and what they do, but one thing I really do appreciate is they are serious about wanting their employees to handle their cattle properly.”
He notes that in order to make welfare assessments work, clients need to have a general interest in animal welfare, too. But veterinarians can advocate for welfare, he suggests, by offering value-added services like these.
Dr. Thomson suggests adding in the BQA cow-calf assessment as a tool during pregnancy checking. Body condition score, animal handling and the general welfare of a farm or ranch can be reviewed all at one time by the veterinarian.
Dr. Sjeklocha believes, “BQA is one of the greatest success stories in the beef industry.” Articles authored by Dr. Dee Griffin about the responsibility we have for our food was one of the things that inspired Dr. Sjeklocha to return to college at age 25 to complete both an undergrad and a DVM at Kansas State.
Prior to this, he had several years of hands-on experience of pen riding and cattle treatment in a southwest Missouri starter yard. He took a real interest in both the welfare and food safety aspects of this.
Today, he says, “One of the issues we have in the feedyard and agriculture, in general, is finding people who want to stay in it and work. A lot of the workers we do have need training.” The animal welfare training that is provided through the BQA feedyard assessment is both structured and streamlined.
Dr. Sjeklocha also “really enjoys” working with these people, teaching and showing them how they need to do things. “Most of them have a pretty good idea of what the end product needs to be if they know how to get there,” he says.
Given his background and expertise, Dr. Sjeklocha and veterinarians like him are the right fit to, for sure, drive this bus.
To Become BQA Certified
Work with your state coordinator or cattlemen’s group to organize a face-to-face meeting/training. BQA trainers are located within all 50 states. Or go online to www.AnimalCareTraining.org. A veterinary track is available for continuing education credits and BQA certification.
As a practice service, veterinarians can also guide their producer-clients to this online BQA training site, suggests Dr. Thomson. It allows producers to self-pace their education, while decreasing the time spent away from the ranch, especially in remote locations.
Free BQA Training Information: Boehringer Ingelheim Promotes BQA
Dr. Sjeklocha adds that Cattle Empire takes advantage of the online training modules, which are available in English and Spanish, to train its employees in beef quality assurance. The feedlot has a bank of computers at the headquarters office where they can quickly get new hires into these modules.
“For us it was a matter of convenience,” he says, “because most workers don’t have access to a computer.”
When a training package is complete, a certificate of completion is available for printing. Managers can register employees and track their progress; those that complete training are recorded in a national database of certified producers.
Dr. Thomson adds that consistently, regardless of cattle type, experience or language, a Beta test shows that participants have a 27 percent increase in knowledge retention through the online training modules.
To Obtain Your MBA
The program consists of six, 1-hour core courses. “It doesn’t take long to do,” he reports. He admits he’s not totally comfortable about public speaking, “but I’m willing to step outside my box and give it a try.” Dr. Sjeklocha adds, “It’s going to take more of us stepping up, as we’re going to be under the microscope and I don’t foresee it stopping.”
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