I just returned from a 10-day trip to the United Kingdom. During this trip, I visited three beef farms and two beef slaughter plants. Because all growth promotants are banned in the UK, a high percentage of the fed beef is intact bulls. To improve weight gain, they have bred huge Limousin x Devon cross cows, that were selected for gentleness. The cows are bred to a double-muscled Belgium Blue Sire that has been selected for easy calving. This results in bulls that will attain a market weight of more than 1,400 lbs. by the age of about 16 months. Each group of feeder bulls is penned in indoor pens in groups of 25 to 30.

The bulls were gentle and easy to handle. To prevent fighting and keep dark cutters below 5 percent, they go to slaughter either in penmate groups or they are processed immediately after arrival at the plant. Forages are abundant in the UK and the percentage of grain fed is somewhat lower. England has the advantage of an almost year-round growing season, which results in lush green pastures that can support huge mama cows. In many parts of the US, it would be difficult to economically maintain these large cows.

Country vs. city folk

In the last few years, badgers have spread tuberculosis. Farmers are not allowed to kill badgers because environmental groups lobby to protect them. In certain parts of the UK, this has resulted in farmers having to test their cattle over and over again for TB and destroy all positive animals. I talked to one farmer who is getting rid of most of his cattle because constant testing and destroying cattle is not sustainable. Others have converted to sheep production. The UK is a picturesque, beautiful place of pastures with hedgerows that form the fences, many of which have been there for several hundred years. The government does not understand that the farmers have created and maintained the countryside that the British public loves, and it will become an overgrown mess if the cattle and sheep farmers stop tending the land. The TB problem, due to infected badgers, is getting worse and it will put beef farmers out of business unless it can be controlled.

Bovine passports

The two beef plants I visited were immaculate. All cattle had to have their “passports” checked at the plant before they went to the stunner. Since the plants were small, each animal was locked in a headgate and had its electronic tag scanned. One of the plants stunned cattle with electricity in a Jarvis electric stun box. It used a three-phase stun with three separate circuits. The total cycle time was for 25 seconds, which resulted in a completely dead, motionless animal. The long stun time depolarizes the spine and stops all the kicking. Most plants in the UK use captive-bolt stunners.

At both plants, I asked about how employees are recruited. I was shocked to learn that they bring in young lads from Poland because the locals refuse to work in the plants. These were small plants where everybody was dressed in clean, white uniforms. The plant manager was sad to report that locals would sign up and quit soon after starting work there.

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.