For years I have stated that the industry should change practices and make downer fatigued pigs disappear. Recently I visited a US plant with heavy market pigs and out of over 1,000 animals, there was only one non-ambulatory downer. The pigs were observed during truck unloading and handling at the stunner. Even more mind blowing was that the temperature was over 100°F. I was with some visitors and they were asking what the downer hoist was for. In the days of lots of downers, it would have been obvious what the hoist was used for.
How did they do it? There were three factors: 1) genetic selection for leg conformation; 2) producers walking through their pens to get pigs accustomed to quietly moving away; and 3) low-dose ractopamine or ractopamine free. It was obvious they had worked on genetic selection. The bad defects, such as post legged (too straight), collapsed ankles and twisted legs were absent. If a pig walks on its dew claws, the foot is abnormal. There were no wild pigs that went crazy when a person entered the holding pens at the plant. On other plant visits, I have observed that reducing the dose of ractopamine also made a big improvement and lowered the percentage of downer fatigued pigs. The bottom line is the outcome. They made non-ambulatory fatigued pigs almost go away, and they did it when the weather was extremely hot. All this work had to be done on the farm. Conditions at the plant remained the same.
I have been in the livestock industry for many years. Fifteen years ago, problems with lame or fatigued feedlot cattle did not exist. There are many reasons why. Fed cattle today are heavier and younger. Unfortunately, there are some producers who are repeating the mistakes that the pork industry is now correcting. The same leg conformation problems that occurred in pigs are now appearing in some cattle. Indiscriminate selection for carcass traits is related to poor feet and legs. There are two main genetic defects that can be easily observed – collapsed ankles where the cattle walk on their dewclaws and twisted claw (corkscrew foot). When the animal gets older, their toes start to cross.
There are also three other issues:
- It is important to get cattle accustomed to people moving in and out of pens by a person on foot.
- Poorly managed ractopamine use. Hot weather can make problems worse. Data collected from large industry surveys shows that lameness in fed cattle increases in the summer.
- Raising cattle on bare concrete. If cattle remain on bare concrete too long, they will get swollen knee joints and be lame.
Again, the bottom line is the industry should make the fatigued lame cattle problem go away. The pork industry showed that they have producers who have done it. The beef industry should make sure they do not let bad become normal. Constant monitoring and documentation of lameness and downers is essential. Severely lame fed cattle should be reported back to the feed yard.
When they rest in the plant stockyard, normal cattle will tuck both front feet under their bodies. This is the normal position. If they lay down with one leg tucked under and the other front leg sticking straight out, that leg is hurting. A variety of causes can make cattle lie in this abnormal position. It is an outcome that can be easily observed. If the yard managers see lots of cattle lying with an extended front leg, it should be photographed, and the picture sent back to the feedlot.
There are a few poor cattle feeders who continue sending severely lame feedlot cattle to packing plants. There are also some animals that are crazy wild because they are not accustomed to people around them on foot. There are serious welfare issues. Feed yard managers will change their ways if they know that if they send something nasty to the plant, it will get photographed and documented.