Handling procedures in many large beef and pork slaughter plants have become excellent, and the problems I have observed with animal handling are primarily caused by factors on the farm, ranch, dairy or feedlot. It is time to push back down the supply chain and fix these problems.
Low-stress, humane handling is nearly impossible if the animals are highly excitable, lame, weak or heat-stressed.
Highly excitable animals
The behavior of pigs and cattle during handling is influenced by handling procedures on the farm. The worst pigs to handle at the plant are the ones where nobody has entered their pens until the day of loading the trucks. When it is time to load, they pile up and squeal when a person enters the pen. To prevent this from happening, the producer should get the pigs accustomed to people by walking through the pens before they are shipped. During the finishing period, the person should walk through the pens in a different random direction each day to train the pigs to quietly move away.
Some of the most dangerous cattle to handle are ones that have been exclusively handled on horses. They may become highly agitated when they encounter their first person on foot at a plant. To prevent this problem, cattle should be moved in and out of pens by people on foot before they arrive at the plant. Animals are very specific in how they store memories. A person on foot and a person on a horse are two totally different pictures. The man on the horse has become safe and familiar, but the person on foot is new, novel and frightening.
Lameness causes difficulties
Lame animals are more difficult to handle because they are reluctant to move. I have recently observed sore-footed feedlot cattle that had been fed beta-agonists. The cattle had normal looking feet, but they tended to walk hesitantly. Imagine how you would walk if you were walking on hot pavement with bare feet. That is how these animals walk. In the same group of cattle, lameness is very variable. In most groups, 50 percent of the cattle appear normal and about 5 percent are severely lame and another 20 percent are sore footed. I have seen this lameness variability at five different plants, and I never observed this type of lameness in feedlot cattle before beta-agonists were put on the market.
Another lameness problem I have observed is arthritic swollen leg joints in pigs. I have seen groups of market hogs where 50 percent of the animals were severely lame with severely swollen joints. This appeared to be caused by a variety of factors such as arthritis or poor leg conformation.
Heat stress is a challenge
During hot weather, I have observed heat stress in all types of and breeds of feedlot cattle. It is likely these cattle had been fed beta-agonist because the heat-stressed cattle were also lame. Again, the heat-stress symptoms were very variable. They ranged from 5 percent with open-mouth breathing with tongues out, to half the cattle being normal. About twenty percent of the group had open- mouth breathing.
To have humane treatment at the slaughter plant requires receiving an animal that is fit for handling and transport. The animals I have described in this articled were not fit. To solve these problems, conditions at the animal’s origin must be corrected.