Consumers want to feel good about their food choices. Research repeatedly shows Americans want assurances that the food they feed their families is raised in a manner that is environmentally friendly and — in the case of meat and dairy foods — that the animals are treated humanely.

Now, new research provides concrete evidence that animal well-being is a high priority — at least in the cattle-feeding industry.

A research project by Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Department of Animal Sciences found Kansas commercial feedyards earn excellent ratings for maintaining cattle comfort and animal handling. The first-of-its-kind study examined production practices across Kansas’ commercial cattle-feeding industry and compared actual practices to an objective standard.

The study, funded by the Kansas Beef Council through the Beef Checkoff, was designed to demonstrate the implementation of an industry-oriented animal-welfare assessment, while recording data to observe and establish a baseline of current practices and documentation within the commercial cattle-feeding industry, as well as identify potential areas for improvement.

Assessments were conducted according to the Beef Quality Assurance Feedyard Assessment Tool, which was developed and written by veterinarians, university professors and industry professionals, and reviewed and endorsed by noted animal-welfare expert, Dr. Temple Grandin. The research team objectively evaluated key areas of beef cattle production, such as animal handling, antibiotic resistance avoidance, cattle comfort and food safety in 56 commercial feedyards across Kansas. The average one-time feeding capacity was 35,455 animals, with a range of 3,000 to 135,000 animals. Collectively, the participating feedyards have a one-time capacity of 1.985 million cattle, which represents roughly 85 percent of the state’s entire one-time feeding capacity.

Trained Kansas State personnel, in collaboration with practicing beef-industry veterinarians, worked with feedyard personnel to complete the assessments, which evaluated and assessed documentation of 18 different best management practices, animal housing, care and processing facilities, and cattle-handling practices. Ten randomly selected pens within each feedyard were inspected for cattle comfort, water tank cleanliness and feed quality; a minimum of seven acceptable pens out of 10 was required to pass.

Animal handling was evaluated by observing processing procedures on a minimum of 100 cattle within each feedyard operation. Evaluations included usage of driving aides on cattle, prevalence of cattle falling, tripping, vocalization prior to the application of a procedure, jumping and accuracy of cattle restraint. The prevalence rates were compared to maximum acceptable percentages set forth in the assessment tool.

All participating feedyards were found to exceed acceptable levels for facilities and cattle comfort. On average, 98 percent of inspected pens had acceptable animal stocking density, mud scores and feed bunk evaluation. Cleanliness of water tanks was acceptable in 83 percent of all pens inspected.

All feedyards in the study were found to possess a documented, valid veterinary-client-patient relationship.

During cattle processing, the researchers found a driving aide was used on 3.98 percent of cattle (maximum acceptable = 10 percent usage rate); 0.2 percent of cattle fell while exiting the chute (maximum acceptable = 5 percent); 1.8 percent of cattle tripped while exiting the chute (maximum acceptable = 10 percent); 0.9 percent of cattle vocalized while in the chute before a procedure was performed (maximum acceptable = 5 percent); 5.9 percent of cattle jumped and ran when exiting the chute (maximum acceptable = 25 percent); and 0.2 percent of cattle were improperly restrained before processing (maximum acceptable = 0 percent).

Nineteen of the 56 participating feedyards (34 percent) maintained complete and current documentation for the 18 best management practices required by the assessment. The percentage of large feedyards (greater than 20,000 head capacity) with BMP documentation exceeded the percentage for small feedyards — 42 percent vs. 18 percent, respectively.

The takeaway message from this study is that feedyards are exceeding animal-care standards set forth by experts such as Grandin. It is likely more research on animal care will be conducted in the future, but this initial study certainly provides tangible evidence that cattlemen care.