I recently attended a meeting of the Academy of Veterinary Consultants, a national organization of veterinarians whose practice focus is beef cattle. One of the topics presented at this meeting dealt with how veterinarians can become more involved in the welfare of cattle.
At the end of the presentation, I asked the veterinarians in attendance, “How many of you have feedyard clients who have undergone the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Feedyard Welfare Assessment (FWA)?” I was very disappointed in the number of raised hands.
Why isn’t this tool being more readily adopted? Perhaps our industry hasn’t done a good job of promoting it. I’ve gained considerable experience with this program and have been very pleased with the results – in both the cattle and the feedyard crews. Developed by cattlemen (it originates from the Texas Cattle Feeders Association), FWA assesses a wide variety of practices within the feedyard and makes every effort to assess them objectively.
Tests to pass
One example of objective measurement is when the independent assessor observes cattle being processed. The assessor watches as 100 head of cattle are processed and scores the crew on how well the cattle are handled. Records are kept on how many of the cattle fall down, vocalize, run from or jump out of the chute, have an electric prod used on them, or are miscaught in the chute. Limits are set to determine a passing or failing grade.
For instance, there is zero tolerance for cattle being miscaught. If a calf runs through the chute and the operator catches him by the head rather than the neck (and doesn’t immediately release or readjust the animal), then the processing crew will fail the assessment. Similarly, if 5% of the cattle vocalize upon being caught in the chute, but before the processing procedure is carried out, the assessment is failed.
My experience has been that most processing crews are pleasantly surprised upon completing this part of the assessment. They simply didn’t realize how well they were doing. The ability to show them their exact numbers has proven to be very encouraging to them and also stimulates them to try to “beat” their score when they are reassessed.
Other parts of the assessment include evaluation of the physical facilities in the feedyard, such as feedbunk and tank cleanliness; upkeep/maintenance on fences, chutes and flooring; pen maintenance; and condition of loading/unloading facilities.
Written standards required
The assessment also requires written Best Management Practices and Standard Operating Procedures. These include documented training on animal handling and animal care; and written procedures pertaining to emergency action plans, euthanasia, downer animal handling, food safety, biosecurity and medication receiving and storage, to name a few.
I think it’s important to use this assessment as a tool. It shouldn’t be thought of as a “test” that we pass and then forget about. I’ve found that workers respond very positively to the process; and once they understand that it’s an opportunity for them to learn to do their jobs better, turnover decreases because they enjoy their work more. Workers are also more willing to point out facility problems that may be detrimental to animal welfare. When this occurs, consider it an opportunity to demonstrate how important animal welfare is by resolving the issue as soon as possible.
BQA’s FWA provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate our practices and procedures. Cow-calf producers should note that a similar assessment tailored to the cow-calf operation is coming soon.
An independent, third-party assessment should be conducted no less than annually, along with quarterly “in-house” assessments. This is a valuable tool; if your veterinarian hasn’t brought it to your attention, I encourage you to bring it to theirs.
Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager for animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, LLC, Satanta, KS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.