Tall animals cause big problems

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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Cattle handling in feedlots has improved. Surveys done by Ruth Woiwode at Colorado State Univ. found that feedlots have greatly reduced electric prod use. In fed cattle, bruises due to rough handling have definitely declined, but unfortunately, a new bruising problem is gradually getting worse. Dan Thomson from Kansas State Univ. reported at the recent American Meat Institute Animal Handling Conference that back bruises on tall cattle have become a problem. 

Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin

Recently I visited several large fed-beef plants in Kansas and observed that the increased bruises are mostly on Holstein steers. Some of these steers are as tall as a small horse. One monstrous Holstein steer’s back was even with the top of my head. I am 5’8” and most of the other Holstein steers were not quite as large. The pattern is – heavy beef-breed steers become really wide and Holsteins have become really tall. The Holstein steers were not overly fat, they were just tall. These tall animals are hitting their backs when they unload from the trucks. Making truck decks with more ceiling clearance will be difficult. Overall trailer height is restricted and lowering the belly to provide more clearance will result in trailer damage on bad roads. Single-deck trailers would be a very expensive option.

On the dressing line, I spent almost an hour looking at bruises. On the really tall Holsteins, the bruises were usually located on the crest of the shoulder and on the rump. The beef-breed carcasses had very few bruises on the back. The Holstein carcasses were so long that they dragged on the visceration table, even though the top of the conveyor table had already been lowered six inches. In the coolers, Holstein steers were often two feet longer than Angus.

The dairy industry needs to stop breeding such tall, huge-framed animals. If the Holstein steers become even larger, it will cause difficult and expensive problems with fed-beef plant equipment. All the easy fixes for taller cattle have already been made, such as raising pivot points on backstop gates, and restrainer modifications. Changing the height of the rails in the chiller is so expensive that it is simply not an option. At another plant, they have a back-height limitation. If a steer cannot fit under a size guide, he is sent back to the feedlot. It is like the hanging height restriction bars in parking garages. The best solution is to breed shorter animals.

Reasons to reduce size

Some people in the dairy industry have already realized that huge Holsteins have become counterproductive. Large cows are more expensive to feed. Recently I visited Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana. This is the progressive dairy farm that is open to the public. They are milking a slightly smaller Holstein cow that eats less feed and produces slightly less milk. These smaller cows also have the advantage of lasting for three or four lactations instead of just two. In animal production, the industry should strive for optimum production instead of maximum production.

A recent survey of dairy auctions in Wisconsin indicated that almost 20 percent of cull dairy cows were emaciated body score 1’s. Everything is going into milk and there is nothing left of the cows. They have to eat tremendous amounts of feed to maintain body condition.

Another big disadvantage of huge Holstein steers is the size of the beef cuts. The rib eye will cover an entire plate. I can remember all the discussions in the 1970’s when the European Continental breeds, such as Charolais and Simmentals, were first brought to this country.

One of the first stories I wrote for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman in the 1970’s was about huge imported Charolais bulls. Everyone predicted that huge beef cows would remake the industry. They did not. Huge beef cows are too expensive to feed and nobody wanted the gigantic cuts of meat. The dairy industry has repeated the same mistake that the beef industry made 40 years ago.

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