A survey comparing the views of animal welfare between consumers and beef cattle producers led by researchers at Kansas State University reported two-thirds of consumers are “concerned about the welfare of beef cattle in the U.S.”
Surprisingly, only 43 percent of consumer respondents did not disagree with the statement, “Low beef prices are more important than the well-being of cattle.”
And when asked their level of “agreement” or “disagreement” associated with the statement, “I believe that cattle producers face a trade-off between profitability and animal welfare,” only 20 percent of consumer respondents “disagreed.” Clearly a significant portion of consumers are concerned about animal welfare and believe producers have to deal with a difficult balance between profitability and animal welfare.
Contrasting perspectives on welfare
In recent years, two organizations that approach animal welfare from two very different perspectives produced documents that evaluated animal welfare concerns in beef cattle production. One included an “inward look” at the beef industry via a beef checkoff-funded white paper involving university researchers in the U.S. and Canada who identified key gaps in knowledge and priorities for further research.
The other document was produced by the activist organization Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and characterized major concerns held by HSUS staff related to beef cattle production.
Interestingly, the beef checkoff-funded paper indicated that the practice of abrupt weaning needs to be addressed via research from an animal welfare perspective, particularly in regard to determining best management practices for non-abrupt weaning methods and implications of such practices, to help producers evaluate the practicality of such a change.
Yet the vast majority of the paper focused on a number of issues including production technologies (e.g., beta agonists) and on-farm production practices (e.g., castration) of greater concern to most consumers.
In contrast, the HSUS document identified “abrupt weaning” (versus low-stress or natural weaning) as one of their five major concerns, with the other four being castration, horn removal, branding and long-distance transportation.
Much of the focus related to weaning addressed method used and calf age when weaning is most often done.
The majority of the HSUS paper summarized scientific studies into painful procedures; however, the unnamed authors of the HSUS document did acknowledge that the beef industry does not have the same welfare challenges present with other species.
In fact, they stated “While many other commercially produced animals used in agriculture, such as pigs and chickens, are raised in indoor confinement facilities, young calves in the beef industry are largely permitted to roam outdoors, which in comparison, is a substantial welfare improvement.”
Weaning concerns among retailers
In recent years one national retailer has taken a stand on weaning practices in the beef industry. Whole Foods, through their enforcement of standards produced by the Global Animal Partnership’s 1 through 5+ step rating system, requires that beef cattle be weaned at a minimum age of 6 months for steps 1 through 4, and 8 months for step 5.
For their elite step 5+ rating, only natural weaning of calves is allowed. However, GAP standards do not address weaning method among the cattle that supply beef into their steps 1 through 5.
Similarly, the Animal Welfare Approved standards program created by the Animal Welfare Institute indicates a minimum weaning age of 6 months, with a herd average of 8 months, is required in their program based on published evidence that cortisol and norepinephrine can be elevated in calves weaned abruptly at 6 months old.
However, like GAP, no standards address weaning methods for beef marketed through their label-based program.
Alternative weaning methods
Only in the last few years has noticeable animal welfare-related research into weaning strategies occurred. Clearly, abrupt removal of calves from their dams prior to “natural weaning” leads to a sudden dietary change since milk is removed from the diet and requires breaking the cow-calf bond.
However, weaning is also necessary to enable dams to amass body condition and achieve calving intervals of close to 365 days in order to produce a calf annually. Natural weaning would reduce the likelihood of cows rebreeding at a reasonable rate over time and significantly reduce the efficiency of beef production.
Possibly the biggest challenge with abrupt weaning is that the majority of calves are often instantly exposed to disease challenges and other physical stressors such as transportation, commingling, etc. through the marketing process, which is done immediately post-weaning on most operations.
Beyond abrupt weaning, there are two predominant alternatives used by a minority of producers: 1) fenceline weaning, and 2) two-stage weaning. Fenceline weaning involves the physical separation of calves via a sturdy fence to block nursing but allows cows and calves to be in close proximity.
Two-stage weaning starts with the use of low-cost plastic nose flaps (stage 1) to prevent nursing but enable calves to stay with their dams.
Most manufacturers’ recommendations are for flaps to be in place for a short period of approximately 4 to 5 days to avoid soring of calves’ noses. Phase 2 then involves separating calves from their dams and removing flaps.
This strategy requires working the calves in order to place the flaps and may not be consistent with cow-calf operations that are challenged with gathering calves an additional time (i.e., Western range ranches), particularly if it is in addition to preconditioning calves three weeks prior to weaning.
Long-term effects unknown
There is scientific evidence that lower-stress weaning methods can result in a reduction in stress-related behaviors associated with weaning (i.e., bawling, walking, etc.), particularly in calves.
And increased short-term weight gains post-weaning have been documented. However, long-term benefits of alternative weaning methods have not been clearly documented, including effects on cattle health, feedyard performance and efficiency and carcass quality.
In fact, some evidence indicates that carcass weight, marbling score and end-product eating quality can be positively influenced by weaning calves earlier than 6 months of age, although weaning methods have not been closely evaluated in these areas.
Ultimately, consumers will continue to be increasingly concerned about how cattle are treated within the beef industry. It is likely that other on-farm practices being used (e.g., castration, branding, dehorning) will be under much more scrutiny than weaning method and age.
Until scientific research can clearly indicate the impacts of weaning methods on longer-term welfare and profitability, which is very difficult to do, it’s unlikely that industry weaning practices will alter significantly based on a lack of difference in documented profitability.
References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.
PHOTO: Some evidence shows carcass weight, marbling score and beef quality can be positively influenced by weaning calves earlier than 6 months. Staff photo.
Jason K. Ahola
- Associate Professor – Beef Management Systems
- Colorado State University
- Email Jason K. Ahola