Cattle feeders are doing a lot of things right in terms of animal welfare and beef quality assurance, but many might need to improve in some areas, particularly their documentation of best practices, to maintain consumer trust.

Consumer interest in how food is produced, coupled with increasing access to information about production agriculture, has prompted many sectors of the food chain to seek improvement in accountability of animal producers for animal welfare and quality assurance practices.

With increasing pressure from consumers and retailers, production standards and audits have been

developed and utilized for dairy production, laying hens and broilers, and beef and pork slaughter plants. The effectiveness of animal care standards depends on establishment of auditing systems that ensure best practices and setting goals for improvement.

The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, established in 1987, provides producers with production guidelines intended to assure beef product quality and safety, as well as proper animal care. Since then, the beef-cattle industry has expended significant effort defining standards of care and best management practices. Research has shown a high rate of acceptance for the BQA program. In a 2011 study, 95 percent of feedyard managers indicated they were familiar with the BQA program, and 90 percent indicated that BQA practices were somewhat or very important to their operation.

However, historically little has been done to evaluate implementation of standards through the

use of assessment or auditing tools. Putting the assessment into action, while concurrently

tracking outcomes and progress, can increase producer accountability for livestock management

practices, maintain consumer confidence, provide objective benchmarking and prepare producers for an audit.

The objectives of this study were to:

1.       Assess the extent of implementation of BQA standards within the feedyard industry in Kansas.

2.       Identify production practices that exceed BQA standards.

3.       Identify areas needing improvement.

To achieve those objectives, we used the BQA Feedyard Assessment, developed by veterinarians, animal scientists and production specialists, to objectively evaluate key areas of beef-cattle production such as animal handling, antimicrobial residue avoidance and cattle comfort in 56 Kansas feedyards. During the assessment, our research team reviewed management protocols, inspected facilities and pens, and observed cattle-handling practices.

The 56 Kansas feedyards that volunteered to participate in the study scheduled one-day assessments, conducted by either a private-practice veterinarian or Kansas State University personnel trained in both BQA and how to conduct the assessment.  For purposes of comparison, feedyards were placed into capacity groups, with those having one-time capacity of more than 20,000 head classified

as large and those with capacity less than 20,000 classified as small.

During each assessment, assessors used uniform procedures, score sheets and standards to evaluate and score feedyards for multiple aspects of animal abuse or neglect, animal handling, pen conditions and documentation of best management practices (BMPs). They scored each item as either:   

  • Acceptable/Yes — the measure was satisfied.
  • Requires action — the measure was somewhat satisfied, but could use improvement.
  • Unacceptable/No — the measure was not met satisfactorily.
  • Not applicable — does not apply in this feedyard.

The assessment forms required comments for any category point scored as “Requires action” or “Unacceptable.”

Reporting Results

The assessors recorded results and discussed pertinent observations with feedyard management immediately following the assessment, particularly observations and recommendations detailed

in the comments section of the assessment document. Anonymity was assured by assigning a unique feedyard identification number so that results could be recorded and reviewed at the Beef Cattle Institute without knowing the actual identification of the feedyard. Each manager received a copy of the assessment. Data were compiled and recorded in an electronic database.

Results

Thirty-eight feedyards in the large-capacity group, ranging from 20,000 to 135,000 head, were enrolled in the study, with a total capacity of 1,796,500 head of cattle, while 18 small-capacity feedyards, ranging from 2,500 to 17,500 head, were enrolled, with a total capacity of 189,000 cattle. The 56 feedyards participating in this study had a combined one-time capacity of 1,985,500 cattle, or 84 percent of the cattle-feeding capacity in Kansas.

Animal abuse or neglect

No animal abuse or neglect was observed at any time during assessments of participating feedyards.

Cattle-handling observations

The assessment protocol recommends that 100 head of cattle to be observed during handling, but if a

pen does not contain 100 head, evaluate all cattle in the pen. At one feedyard only 71 head were observed during cattle handling due to a processing miscommunication; at another feedyard, 87 head were observed because no other cattle were scheduled for processing on the day of the assessment.

The only category point failing to score “Acceptable” was when cattle were improperly caught and restrained, and the catch not corrected prior to conducting processing procedures. This is a zero-tolerance error in cattle handling. A total of 13 head of cattle at seven different feedyards were caught and restrained improperly and not readjusted prior to processing. Feedyard employees were receptive to corrective recommendations, and many understood why it is a zero-tolerance cattle-handling measurement.

The other category points measured for cattle handling at participating feedyards scored within the “Acceptable” standards range during the assessments. When all six measurements of cattle handling

were combined (driving aides, falling, tripping, vocalizing, jumping and improper restraint) 79 percent of feedyards scored “Acceptable” for all category points.

Pen observations

Assessments were conducted from July through April. On average, feedyards scored “Acceptable” in each pen condition category based on standards established in the assessment guide. Average “Acceptable” water tank scores were lower than mud scores or feed bunk maintenance scores but still met or exceeded the minimum score of 70 percent required to be “Acceptable.” When the measurements of pen condition criteria points were combined (feed bunks, water tanks, mud scores, unacceptable stocking rates), 83 percent of feedyards scored “Acceptable” for all combined category points. Because pen conditions are directly correlated with cattle comfort and care, and require efforts by both management and employees, pen conditions are useful measurements for demonstrating animal care and welfare in feedyards.

Documentation of BMPs

Nineteen, or 34 percent of participating feedyards had all 18 BMPs documented. When a BMP was absent or not current, an “Unacceptable” score was given for that category point or specific BMP.

A larger percentage of small-capacity feedlots lacked adequate documentation of BMPs than did large-capacity feedlots. Managers of small-capacity feedyards stated they had insufficient time to complete

paperwork necessary to develop BMPs due to time demands of managing a diversified operation; many owners of small feedyards had alternate sources of income.

Some large-capacity feedlot managers expressed the need for extra staff time to develop and maintain paperwork required by the assessment, especially the BMP portion, as a reason for lack of acceptable documentation of BMPs.

The assessment documents provide template BMPs, which were subsequently provided to all feedyard managers. Templates allow managers to fill in blanks unique to their operation, requiring minimal time investment. Managers were encouraged to document at least a portion of the BMPs.

Findings of significance

Eleven of 56, or 19.6 percent of feedyards, scored “Acceptable” for documentation of all BMPs, all cattle handling and all pen observations. Ten of these feedyards were in the large-capacity group, and one was in the small-capacity group. Missing documentation of BMPs was the most common deficit in BQA implementation in participating feedyards.

Results of this study revealed two important points regarding the BQA Feedyard Assessment.

1.       The assessment allows documentation of accepted practices of care (category points) which exceed an industry-accepted standard, as well as practices (category points) which need improvement.

2.       The study demonstrated the successful implementation of the BQA Feedyard Assessment in the commercial cattle-feeding industry. By implementing the assessment, implementation of BQA practices can be benchmarked.

The assessments in this study were conducted during late spring and early summer months, and pen and water tank scores may differ throughout the year. In addition, the presence of an assessor could have altered behavior of feedyard staff members processing cattle. Future studies should conduct assessments throughout the year and seek alternate ways to observe processing procedures to gain more accurate representation of cattle handling, possibly including video recording.

Conclusions

Only 19.6 percent of feedyards in the study received an “Acceptable” score in all categories of the assessment. The primary reason that a feedlot failed to receive a satisfactory score was the lack of BMP documentation. Results of this study identified specific areas of BQA that need improvement, thereby guiding future training and management emphasis. Continued use of the BQA Feedyard Assessment can measure and identify practices needing improvement and can guide training necessary to meet BQA goals. Veterinarians in particular can provide a service by facilitating these assessments and subsequent training for feedyard clients.