The US Dept. of Agriculture is becoming stricter on its enforcing standards on both stunning and handling. The way the regulations are written, stunning has to be perfect, but problems with handling are subject to the inspector’s judgment. Absolutely perfect stunning is impossible.Warranting more immediate attention are the handling and mobility issues that must be corrected at the farm.

Both USDA enforcement and undercover videos have shown problems with handling day-old “bob” Holstein dairy calves. These young Holsteins are often sold at such a young age that they do not walk easily. Attempting to design equipment to handle an animal that has difficulty walking is not going to solve the problem. The only way to fix this is for dairies to keep the calves until they are old enough to walk and stand easily. The dairy cow has been so genetically selected for milk production that Holstein calves are much weaker than beef-breed calves.

Lameness in beef

During hot weather, some people have observed that Zilpaterol has increased the percentage of stiff, sore-footed, lame feedlot cattle. Beta-agonists can definitely be blamed for a major portion of lame beef cattle at packing plants, but lameness is also increasing in cattle that have never been fed beta-agonists. This problem is likely caused by genetically selecting breeding cattle by looking only at the production “numbers” and abandoning visual appraisal. When animals are selected strictly on traits such as marbling, weight gain or calving ease, breeders often forget to look at the feet and legs to determine if the breeding stock have structurally sound feet and legs.

Many lame cattle that do not have a disease, such as foot rot or “hairy heel warts”, have poor leg conformation. Animals with poor conformation have either feet or legs that are too straight, “post legged” or collapsed ankles. Recently, I handled some Angus cattle that had rear legs that were so straight they walked stiffly. I also looked at a bull-sale catalog from a major Angus breeder and some of the bulls had really poor physical structure.

The beef industry needs to be careful not to repeat the pork industry’s mistakes when they selected only for loin size, thin back fat and rapid gain. Leg conformation became terrible and up to 50 percent of the market- weight pigs were lame. Some breeding companies have reinstated visual appraisal of feet and leg conformation.

Genomic testing is being used in Angus cattle to select for desired traits and it makes it possible to double the rate of genomic change. It is a power tool for breeders. Power tools are good things, but they can be a source of trouble more so than hand tools. Reports from the packing industry indicate that approximately 10 percent of beef breed cattle that have never been fed beta-agonists have mild lameness and approximately 1 percent are severely lame. Heavier weights may also increase the problem. In hot weather, Zilpaterol will double the percentage of lame cattle. Breeders must evaluate beef cattle breeding stock for structural leg soundness. It is essential that breeders do not allow poor leg and foot structure to become a new “bad becoming normal” situation.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.