Dan Frese, DVM, PhD, has conducted research at Kansas State University demonstrating that handling practices can play a role in mobility problems in finished cattle.
Dan Frese, DVM, PhD, has conducted research at Kansas State University demonstrating that handling practices can play a role in mobility problems in finished cattle.

Low-stress cattle handling is an often-discussed topic by cattle producers, veterinarians and nutritionists as well as those who purchase our beef.  It is generally accepted that handling cattle in a manner that promotes better health and performance is a good thing.  However, much of the attention surrounding low-stress handling has been focused at handling around events such as weaning, feedyard processing and acclimation. The attention focused on these timeframes is not without merit, as many of the health problems, primarily bovine respiratory disease, occur around these times.  

After we get cattle healthy and on feed at the feedyard it is easy to put them on “cruise control” and move them along through the feeding period and put them on a truck to the packer at the right time without much further thought as to how we handle these animals.  However, management of cattle at the end of the feeding period can have an impact on the incidence of a recently described syndrome, called fatigued cattle syndrome, or FCS.

FCS was recently described in a publication by Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.  The events described in this case study occurred in August and September of 2013 and were well publicized as these events led to the announcement by Tyson Foods that it would stop slaughtering cattle fed the beta-agonist zilpaterol hydrochloride (Zilmax).

FCS is a series of clinical signs, characterized by reluctance to move, decreased flight zone, muscle tremors and a shortened, stiff gait combined with blood chemistry abnormalities, such as elevated lactic acid concentrations, low blood pH and increased creatine kinase in the blood. 

These symptoms closely resemble the symptoms of swine affected by fatigued pig syndrome (FPS), which was described in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  During this time period, the swine industry was experiencing many of the same events that have been happening in the beef industry over the past several years, such as rapid increases in carcass weights and the widespread adoption of the use of a group of growth promotants called beta agonists. 

Research into FPS revealed a syndrome caused by multiple additive stressors, such as animal handling, facilities, transportation space and environmental conditions all playing a role to increase the number of down or non-ambulatory swine at slaughter facilities.  This research also revealed that poor animal handling, such as the heavy use of electric prods and forcing rapid movement, to be one of the major inciting risk factors.

Recent research done by the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University was presented at the Academy of Veterinary Consultants and Plains Nutrition Council meetings this past April.  Two studies were performed in the summer of 2014 at commercial cattle-feeding facilities with finished cattle. Cattle were randomly assigned to two different handling treatments involving either low-stress handling or aggressive handling.  The cattle that were handled in a low-stress manner were walked a distance of a mile with a lead rider and were not allowed to proceed at a faster pace. The aggressively handled cattle were moved along the alley at a speed equivalent to a seven- or 10-minute mile for each study, respectively.  Although these speeds may sound fast to many in the cattle industry, cattle are moved through alleys in feedyards at these speeds on a fairly regular basis. 

The results of the study revealed increased blood lactate concentrations, heart rate and rectal temperature, and decreased blood pH, as well as the clinical signs of reluctance to move and muscle tremors in several of the aggressively handled cattle.  Differences in blood chemistries and vitals were seen by the time the cattle had moved a half mile.  This is a distance which cattle could commonly need to be moved in commercial feeding facilities.

Cattle that were fatter (and also heavier) were more affected by poor handling than their thinner cohorts, as blood lactate concentrations were higher and blood pH was lower.  The marked differences in blood lacate, which can increase six to 10 times normal, and blood pH, which may fall as low as 6.9 in some individuals, show the extreme effect that handling can have on the metabolism of these cattle. 

However, the result of this research that is just as striking as the changes in the aggressively handled cattle is the lack of change in the blood lactate and pH of the cattle that were handled with low-stress methods.  Using this research model, we induced FCS using aggressive-handling methods, while cattle handled with low-stress methods showed no signs of fatigue. 

This research is some of the first to show the benefits of low-stress handling and demonstrate it is a component in the prevention of FCS in cattle.  Other factors that might play a role in the incidence of FCS at packing plants include the degree of cattle finish, environmental heat stress, time of day of shipping, distance from the pen to the load out, trucking, time left on the truck at the slaughter facility on hot days, the amount of time in lairage at the slaughter facility and many other management practices that can increase the stress of finished cattle.  The degree to which factors other than handling contribute to the incidence of FCS at slaughter facilities has yet to be defined, but there is little doubt that animal handling is one of the risk factors for cattle to develop FCS.

The movement of cattle to loadout for transportation to slaughter is an area of management that needs to be emphasized.  Shipping cattle doesn’t occur daily, and given the shortage of labor within many feedyard operations, there is a temptation to move cattle quickly to the loading facility so that the other daily responsibilities of the cowboy crew can be attended to.  There may be a temptation by management to push these crews to move cattle quickly and reduce the number of people needed by not using lead riders, in order to speed the process of loadout along. 

In order to reduce the incidence of FCS, owners and managers must create a culture within their operation where low-stress handling is the method of cattle movement.  As an industry we have made good steps over the last several years to emphasize low-stress handling during the earlier production periods.  Now is the time to emphasize the impact we can have by complementing all the hard work by so many by taking the “last mile” of beef production and finishing it well.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about FCS and our ability to prevent it. Research into FCS is ongoing and will hopefully generate more insight into this syndrome.  The role of beta agonists in FCS is the focus of some future research, as they have been shown to increase lactate concentration in swine.  As the welfare of our animals has become more scrutinized than ever by the general public, we need to continue to strive to improve our skills, management and animal handling, for the sake of our producers and consumers, so that we can finish well.