At the Taylor Packing Co. plant in Wyalusing Pa. in 2000, one of the best cattle handlers we had was a young lady named Anne. She had a penchant for moving animals with minimal prod use, and could hold her own with her testosterone-infused male co-workers. Although beef cattle moved through the pens, alleys and lead up chutes well, we experienced higher prod scores on cull dairy cattle at certain points in the system.

Anne, however, consistently moved dairy cows with lower prod scores than the other handlers. When I asked about the secret to her success, she replied: “I sing to them. I grew up on a dairy farm, and we always had country music on the radio while we were milking. I figure singing to them will make them feel like they are at home in the dairy.”

It’s hard to say what impact Zack Brown or Beethoven have calming cull cows at the packing plant, but it does remind me that people with dairy backgrounds often make excellent handlers at beef plants, particularly plants that slaughter cull dairy cows. Looking back through the years, people with dairy backgrounds have always stood out as gentle handlers in the plants I worked.

Got milk?
It makes sense that it is so. Gentle handling is an integral part of a dairyman’s life. Just as meat scientists find different ways to demonstrate the positive impact that reduced stress has on meat quality, so does gentle handling play a role in the quality of milk produced at dairies. Dairy herdsmen learn this early, and those that find their way into into slaughter plants seem to have innate handling skills related to their background.

My dad’s brother, Gene Karczewski, has been a dairy farmer in Southeast Wisconsin for most of his 85 years. He has little patience with the bad actors associated with abusive handling of cows, be it at dairies or slaughter plants. He has always been a gentle and compassionate handler of livestock. Tears well up in his eyes when he recounts a barn fire 60 years ago, and the two bulls that died in the blaze. He still remembers their pain.

For Uncle Gene, the connection between good handling and meat quality was made some half century ago. The butcher that processed his Holstein steers told him “The meat from your cattle is more tender than most others because you take such good care of them. They’re not stressed out.” As with most dairy farmers, Uncle Gene handled his cattle with care because he loves animals. For him, meat and milk quality was a by-product of that love. Knowing the impact his care made on product quality was the “cream on the milk”, and a source of real pride.

Wanted: Gentle handlers
So why do Anne and my Uncle Gene crop up in a discussion of welfare matters at meat plants?

A team of good livestock handlers is an integral part of every plant’s animal welfare program. Customer-required, third-party audits highlight the need for qualified, experienced, and gentle handling in the plant. Good handling skills can even compensate for physical shortcomings in a plant, but rough or abusive handling can doom a perfectly designed facility to failure.

You don’t have to come from a dairy farm to be successful in the livestock area of a meat plant. But the skills that define a successful dairy worker – patience, respect and an understanding of animal behavioral characteristics – are some of the same attributes that are essential to livestock handlers in a meat plant.

The stakes are higher than ever to find and develop the right people for these areas, and companies are focusing more efforts to find employees with the “right stuff”. This includes looking at work experience, attitude toward animals and in some cases, a personality profile. The goal is to identify candidates with the highest potential for success.

In addition to finding people with the right aptitude and attitude, the training toolbox is getting bigger, too. Plants are investing in more time in up-front training before releasing new employees to the job. Companies like Alchemy are developing interactive training modules that are sophisticated, easy to use and fun. Remote video auditing provides real-time feedback on performance, and many managers are using it as a training instrument. On-the-job training is more about job shadowing and learning from experienced handlers. Trial-and-error learning is quickly fading into the past. The error part is too much of a risk.

Finding people favorably disposed to gentle handling and providing the right training, makes a positive difference in your plant’s animal-welfare process. The pursuit of the perfect handler is alive, well and yielding good fruit.
For my money, you can’t beat the dairy farmer.

Anne, will you sing another refrain of “Country Fried”?
If you have a story about a great livestock handler like Anne, or Uncle Gene, I’d like to hear from you. You can comment below, or send me an e-mail at: [email protected].