Stockmanship is an under-appreciated and under-utilized component of operating sustainable livestock operations and just one essential component is low-stress livestock handling (LSLH). We need to ask why. Why is LSLH something that stockmen should take seriously? What evidence is there to persuade us that it is worth adopting?

The purpose of this column is to make the case for LSLH. I will argue briefly that it accrues benefits over conventional livestock handling in several categories, including performance, efficiency, safety, animal welfare and quality of life.

Performance

Numerous scientific studies have illustrated that indices of animal performance (e.g., weight gain, conception rates, milk yield, immune function and carcass quality) are positively correlated with good handling practices and negatively correlated with coercive handling practices. A few representative studies are presented briefly below.

Weight gain

  • An experiment with 144 backgrounded steers indicated that poor handling negatively impacted liveweight gain (Petherick, et al. 2009).
  • A study in Hawaii found that lightly stressed heifers lost 4 percent of their live weight, and moderately stressed heifers lost 6 percent as compared to unstressed controls. Also, when weighed 44 days later the controls gained an average of 25 pounds, the lightly stressed 20 pounds, and the moderately stressed only 16 pounds (Smith, 1998).

Conception rates

  • Stress and the resulting hormonal responses can disrupt ovulation and the preovulatory luteinizing hormone surge which reduces conception rates in dairy cows (Stoebel and Moberg, 1982).
  • Intensive negative human-animal interaction resulted in a 19 percent lower viability rate of embryos in a superovulation program experiment involving 32 cows (Macedo, et al. 2011).

Milk yield

  • A study of dairies in England determined that stockmen had a dramatic effect on milk yields. Of two dairies that changed stockmen during the six-year study period, one increased milk yields by 21.5 percent while the other decreased milk yields by 33.6 percent (Seabrook, 1984).
  • An Idaho dairy increased milk production by 4,000 pounds per day by adopting low-stress handling techniques (Smith, 1998).

Immune function

  • Stress has a significant impact on the incidence and severity of respiratory infections (Hodgson, et al. 2005).
  • Vee Tee Feeders, an 8,000-head feedlot, historically doctored approximately 75 calves per day in October. After adopting low-stress livestock handling methods they doctored three to five per day. (Ritchi Davies, owner, Vee Tee Feeders, Inc., personal communication)

Carcass quality

  • The National Beef Quality Audit calculated that 5 percent of the beef carcasses in the United States are dark cutters due to the stress of improper handling.
  • The 1995 National Beef Quality Audit reported that dark-cutting beef caused by pre-harvest stress cost $6.08 per animal harvested.

Efficiency

The adoption of LSLH, if done properly, can enable the same amount of work with livestock to be done with less people, in less time and with less stress. For instance, one Texas feedyard processed 800 fats per day. After LSLH training, they were able to process 1,400 per day with one less man (Lynn Locatelli, DVM, personal communication).

Safety

Between 2003 and 2007, there were 108 reported fatalities in the United States that involved cattle, mostly from working with them in enclosed areas, moving or herding, loading or feeding (MMWR, 2009). “Animal contact is often ranked as the first or second leading cause of injuries on the farm” (Langley and Morrow, 2010). Langley and Morrow stress that understanding livestock behavior in conjunction with proper handling practices are necessary to help make animal handling a safe activity.

Welfare

The public and corporate buyers (e.g., MacDonald’s Corporation) are becoming increasingly concerned about how the animals they consume and purchase are raised, treated, transported and slaughtered. Stockmanship is an essential part of this equation. In fact, the Farm Animal Welfare Council in Canada issued the Report on Stockmanship and Farm Animal Welfare that emphasized that stockmanship is “the single most important influence on the welfare of farm animals” (Wathes, 2007).

Quality of Life

The one remaining benefit, but by no means the least important, is quality of life. Farmers, ranchers and dairymen often talk of their “way of life,” saying that’s what keeps them in the business in spite of the lack of financial rewards. So, to the degree that LSLH can make handling their livestock less stressful (on them, as well as the animals), more enjoyable and personally rewarding, the better.

From personal experience, working livestock properly (i.e., using the principles and techniques of LSLH) can be easy, rewarding and even fun, or, if done improperly, profoundly difficult, frustrating and downright miserable.

Inputs

An important point is that all the above benefits require no additional input. In fact, they reduce input (e.g., less labor, as noted above). It doesn’t cost anything except a change in human behavior. William Dempster Hoard, the founding president of the National Dairy Union who championed the good treatment of dairy cows as early as the 1930s, once said “If cows could talk, they would be heard all over this country calling for an improved breed of dairymen.”

Putting it all together

It is unquestionable that LSLH, if employed properly, pays dividends in the form of increased performance, efficiency, safety, animal welfare and quality of life, all with no additional inputs. In spite of the trend toward spending less time with our livestock and seeking mechanical and high-tech solutions to behavioral problems, it clearly makes sense for stockmen to improve their level of stockmanship by increasing their LSLH understanding and skill level.

See the full article and more in the digital edition of the August issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.