If you believed the ranting of animal-rights and anti-agricultural groups, you might think that ranchers rely on animal abuse, substandard nutrition and dangerous drugs to raise their cattle.

Unfortunately, some consumers might believe them, or at least begin to harbor some doubt regarding the beef-production system.

Stakeholders in the industry can, however, help protect beef’s public image by communicating a consistent message. The message is that for the beef-production chain to succeed in creating a wholesome, affordable and desirable food product for consumers, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of the animals involved.

Comprehensive management including careful animal handling and husbandry, good nutrition, parasite control and vaccinations prevent sickness. When disease does occur, judicious use of proven medicine reduces suffering. Together, each of these factors contributes to production efficiency, beef quality and, ultimately, the sustained profitability of beef operations.

Talking points

When ranchers set priorities for their businesses, issues related to animal health and welfare rise to the top of the list. Colorado State University animal scientist Tom Field recently completed a report titled “Priorities first — identifying management priorities in the commercial cow-calf business,” on behalf of the American Angus Association. He surveyed cow-calf producers and industry specialists, asking them to rank the importance of management categories. Overall, the top three were herd nutrition, pasture and range management, and herd health.

Producers increasingly recognize that a comprehensive approach toward disease prevention, including timely vaccination, is critical for profitable beef production.

Speaking at a Cattlemen’s College session in January 2007, Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist David Lalman outlined the history of preconditioning in the U.S. beef industry.

  • Initially, in the mid 1960s, preconditioning meant using some pre-weaning vaccinations for calves.
    During the 1970s and 1980s, preconditioning evolved to include a 21- to 30-day weaning period along with vaccinations and some form of process verification such as a signed affidavit.
  • In recent years, the industry has experienced a marketing revolution, with a shift toward value-based pricing. At the same time, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that sick cattle hurt profitability at every stage of production. Lalman cites several research trials that illustrate the cost of disease in the cattle business.
  • In Texas A&M’s 2001 Ranch to Rail program, the spread in net returns between cattle that got sick and those that stayed healthy through the feedyard was more than $87 per head.
  • In an Oklahoma steer feedout, steers that stayed healthy through the feeding period graded 61.8 percent Choice, compared with 44.5 percent for steers that needed treatment for disease.
  • The Noble Foundation conducted a grazing study in which researchers purchased one group of process-verified calves through the Oklahoma Quality Beef Network, and another group of non-process-verified calves through sale barns. During the first 18 days on wheat pasture, the process-verified calves gained an average of 2.64 pounds per day, compared with 1 pound for the non-verified calves. Over the two-month grazing period, the process-verified calves gained an average of 0.24 pounds per day more than the non-verified group.
  • Research data demonstrate that cattle buyers increasingly recognize the value of verifiable health programs. Researchers at Colorado State University, in cooperation with Pfizer Animal Health and Superior Livestock Auctions, have collected sale-price data on more than 3.2 million calves since 1995, looking at value differences based on verification of weaning and vaccination programs.
  • The premiums buyers paid for higher levels of preconditioning increased steadily over the 11-year study. Calves certified as fully vaccinated and weaned for at least 45 days earned the highest premiums in every year of the study, reaching an average of $7.91 per hundredweight in 2004.
    Beef producers have long believed that good animal-handling practices improved productivity. Results of research trials support that contention, demonstrating that stress in cattle can have negative impacts on their health, performance and beef quality.
  • Researchers at Iowa State University recently collected data on 13,000 calves fed for the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity. In addition to monitoring health and performance, the researchers assigned temperament scores to cattle based on their behavior during processing, and evaluated correlations with performance and carcass quality. Data from the study showed that docile cattle were more likely to reach upper two-thirds Choice or higher than excitable cattle, and demonstrated better average daily gains and feed efficiency.
  • Earlier research at Colorado State University showed that 25 percent of excitable animals produced dark-cutting carcasses compared with 6.7 percent for calm animals, and excitable animals were almost three times as likely to produce tough beef.
  • Genetics play a role in cattle temperament, but research and practical experience have shown that careful handling, beginning with calves on the ranch, can help minimize stress as cattle move through later production stages.

Walking points

  • Participate in your state’s BQA program.
  • Use all animal-health products in accordance with their labels.
  • Work with your veterinarian to develop a BVD testing program and a strategy for eliminating animals persistently infected with BVD from your herd.
  • Document all animal-health practices, including vaccinations and treatments.
  • Support companies that invest in research and development by purchasing their products.
  • Consider participating in a marketing system, alliance or supply chain that recognizes and rewards the value of a sound animal-health program.
  • Follow these steps from the Code of Cattle Care from the industry’s Beef Quality Assurance program.

    1 Provide necessary food, water and care to protect the health and well-being of animals.
    2 Provide disease prevention practices to protect herd health, including access to veterinary care.
    3 Provide facilities that allow safe, humane, and efficient movement and/or restraint of cattle.
    4 Use appropriate methods to humanely euthanize terminally sick or injured livestock and dispose of them properly.
    5 Provide personnel with training/experience to properly handle and care for cattle.
    6 Make timely observations of cattle to ensure basic needs are being met.
    7 Minimize stress when transporting cattle.
    8 Keep updated on advancements and changes in the industry to make decisions based upon sound production practices and consideration for animal well-being.
    9 Persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.

Finally, do not allow activist groups to control the dialog on animal welfare, in the media or in Washington, DC. Addressing a group of journalists in April 2007, Kay Johnson, executive vice president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said letting activists lead the discussion “would be like someone without kids establishing the guidelines for how parents should raise their children.” Just like parents, she adds, “farmers and ranchers are willing to make changes, but we need to make sure any changes are done with a lot of thought to the ultimate outcome.”