The impact of maintenance on animal welfare is often underrated. Egregious acts of inhumane handling are attention grabbers and get a lot of YouTube hits because they highlight human misbehavior.

Effective maintenance, however, is an essential part of a plant’s animal handling program. A review of the five basic causes of animal welfare problems in slaughter plants demonstrates just how important this component is. Three of the five basic causes are directly related to maintenance practices:

Five basic causes of animal handling problems at the plant

1. Stressful equipment and methods;

2. Distractions that impede animal movement;

3. Poor equipment maintenance;

4. Lack of employee training; and

5. Poor condition of animals arriving at the plant.

The first three are directly related to plant maintenance practices, and the fourth can be influenced by them. Many animal welfare Non-Compliance Reports (NRs) written by FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) are based on issues related to the facility or equipment malfunctions, all of which are preventable. This is why good maintenance contributes to positive animal well-being.

Beyond nuts and bolts

Maintenance is not: 

  • just a department in a meat plant;
  • the root of all evil for production supervisors; or
  •  a mere collection of wrenches and hammers, nuts and bolts, gear boxes and motors.

The word “maintenance” has been around for about 800 years, and it comes from two Latin words: manu (hand) and tenere (hold) and it literally translates to “ hold in hands”. One mental image this could generate might be a mechanic with a wrench in his hands, ready to do battle .The one that I like in this context is a group of diverse people—mechanics, electricians, herdsman, auditors, QA technicians, barn and maintenance supervisors—holding the plant in their hands . You might think of a football or basketball team on the sideline discussing an upcoming critical play. They “hold the game in their hands”.

Likewise, maintenance is a team sport, not just the province of mechanics and electricians. The activity of maintaining (holding in our hands) the facilities and equipment of the plant is a responsibility of everyone in the plant. This includes the newest production worker to the plant manager, and everyone in between.

Go team!

Let’s apply this to the livestock handling area in your plant. Steve Toal, a plant engineer in Fresno, Calif., identified these steps to using a team approach to “Maintain Welfare” in a presentation at the AMI Animal Care and Handling Conference in March, 2007:

1. Form a team and determine a regular meeting schedule.

2. Determine what property and equipment needs to be maintained.

3. Determine what needs to do be done to our equipment and when and who will do it.

4. Determine whether employees currently have the knowledge, skills and tools needed to perform the tasks.

5. Determine how to measure and audit the maintenance program.

6. Develop an action register.

The core team members, such as animal handlers, maintenance people, auditors, and stunner/restrainer equipment operators, should be familiar with the property and the equipment. Some teams include members from other areas of the plant (sales, safety, human resources, ground beef and fabrication).

One of the most productive teams I have been a part of included members from outside the plant who had an interest in humane handling. One was a graduate student from the Univ. of Wisconsin doing research for his master’s thesis at our plant. He grew up on a dairy and had a lifelong interest in cattle handling. Another was a cattle hauler who wanted to improve conditions for dairy cattle presented for transport. His ideas helped drive our cattle-receiving policy. Team members from outside the livestock handling area bring a fresh perspective and help to think outside the box.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a “dream team” starting out. The most important task is to get started and be flexible in adapting your team’s personnel as time goes on. In sports, the most talented teams don’t always win the championship; the teams that work together best do. In the world of animal welfare, every team can be a winner, working together in continuous improvement to show that indeed, welfare matters.

In the next article, we will discuss the practical aspects of making the team successful. This includes developing a systematic and sustainable approach to “Maintaining Welfare.”

After 30 years in production roles from floor cleaner to plant general manager, Jerry is the owner of Karczewski Consulting ( providing humane handling and plant operations services, with special focus on cull dairy cattle. You can contact him by email at [email protected], or at 262-490-8293.