The American College of Animal Welfare’s (ACAW) principles describe animal welfare as, “The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals …”
Responsible use is clearly a goal of any beef production operation, regardless of size. Another principle of animal welfare described by ACAW is that “Animals should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress and suffering.”
With such a broad definition, there are hundreds of regular welfare considerations for consideration. The purpose of this article is to explore some practices focusing on processing cattle through the chute with respect to animal welfare.
Facility design can directly influence cattle behavior; when processing or training new employees about processing, it is important to emphasize five basic principles of animal behavior:
Cattle like to come back the way they came. Designs such as high-efficiency 180-degree round crowd pens use this principle.
When compared to sharp angled systems, the cattle can see in front of them for more than three body lengths. This perceptions helps to ease movement.
Cattle want to go around anything that has been pressuring them. With this in mind, flow to and from processing chutes should avoid obstacles, bottlenecks and “perceived” pressures such as shadows.
Cattle want to see you. All ruminants are descended from prey species. Stress can be reduced by remaining in visual contact and using the animal’s flight zone to direct movement.
Cattle want to be with and will go to other cattle. Being in visual contact with the rest of the herd can help to reduce stress during chute processing.
Cattle can only process one main thought at a time. Minimizing stress and distractions can greatly aid movement through a chute system by keeping cattle focused on movement through the chutes and alleys.
Noise, movement and distractors, such as other animals, need to be considered and have their presence minimized throughout the chute.
When considering movement through a chute system, there are various tools designed to move cattle forward. Flags, bandanas, ribbons, paddles and prods have all been used.
It is important to consider benchmarks when utilizing these tools and moving cattle to make sure they are being used with regard for animal welfare. Animal welfare researcher Temple Grandin of Colorado State University has recommended the following benchmarks for persuading devices and cattle the author has had good experiences with in practice:
- Fewer than 2 percent of cattle should fall while being moved through the chute. If more than this are stumbling or falling, then there is an obstacle or pressure that needs to be adjusted.
- The pace should not be rushed, with 75 percent of cattle being moved at a trot or walk.
- If a prod is used, at least 90 percent of cattle should be able to be moved without a prod. It is also a good practice to store the prod away from the immediate chute area so it has to be retrieved prior to each use. Also, the use of long prods should be minimized. Short prods (1 foot or less) require a closer location to the animal to use.
In most cases where short prods are used, the animal moves due to the close proximity of the prod operator, not necessarily the prod. This will minimize the use of prods.
- No animals should ram into gates or hit fences. If this is happening regularly, then both the facility layout and pace of handling should be investigated.
- Fewer than 5 percent of cattle should vocalize during movement. If more than this are vocalizing, it would be good to look at prod use, pace of handling and pressure of the squeeze chute.
The squeeze chute itself can be a source of stress and, therefore, an opportunity to minimize stress during processing. Hydraulic chute operators should be dedicated to operating the chute. Operator attention being too divided can lead to catching cattle too quickly, animals escaping or excessive pressures used for restraint.
Operators should be focused and utilize a “two-handed” technique for operating levers to ensure the appropriate amount of pressure is utilized. These same principles would apply to manually powered squeeze chutes as well. Adequate staffing can allow for a pace that is not rushed and allow for everyone involved to focus on reducing stress.
By no means can one article address all aspects of animal welfare, especially when it comes to cattle. But by looking for ways to minimize stress and fear during processing at the chute, we can ensure principles for responsible stockmanship that will lead to a healthy environment for cattle.
Dr. Joe Smith is a faculty clinician in the Food Animal and Camelid Hospital at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.
PHOTO: Operators should utilize a two-handed technique in using a squeeze chute or a manual chute to apply adequate pressure. Photo courtesy of Cassidy Woolsey.
- Food Animal and Camelid Hospital
- Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Email Joe Smith