The development of feedlots for beef cattle represents a transitional step midway between husbandry agriculture of the sort represented by extensive cattle ranching and thoroughly industrialized, high- confinement agriculture represented in its extreme by the egg industry. After the so-called “green revolution” generated a massive increase in the cultivation of grain, particularly corn, people realized that an obvious pathway to adding value to grain is to convert it to beef. No longer was the size of one’s beef operation limited by the amount of grazing land one controlled. After spending nine months to a year grazing, cattle could be moved into pens and fed until market weight is reached.

Unlike egg- laying chickens, cattle maintained in confined feedlots can actualize a fair amount of their natural behavior. They are free to interact with one another, a necessity for herd animals, and to move around. Thirty years ago, these animals were severely over-crowded into small pens, but stocking densities have significantly decreased in recent years. Most feedlots are located in the Great Plains area, where they are close to the production of grain, and range cattle, and relatively removed from urban centers. While this provides indubitable efficiencies, it can create severe welfare problems for the animals. For example, in Colorado feedlots, there is virtually no natural shelter or shade, and there are often severe problems of wind. Constant wind, blowing dust, lack of refuge from snow storms all create major and severe stressors on the animals. (Snowstorms can make delivery of feed to the animals a major challenge.) Temperatures in Colorado can range from 30° below zero Fahrenheit in winter to well over 100° in summer.

Shelter

Thirty years ago, I enjoined feedlot managers to create inexpensive shelter and shade which would pay for itself by diminishing stress on the animals. Good managers have moved in that direction, but it is by no means universal. Additionally, poor drainage design has led to animals forced to stand in deep mud, which freezes in winter, engendering obvious distress and discomfort. Furthermore, being forced to stand in mud can lead to lameness being caused by foot rot (interdigital necrobacillosis) and TTNS (toe tip necrosis syndrome), clearly a source of pain and diminished welfare. Such lameness affects 3.8 % of North American feedlot cattle. (Terell et al, 2014) This is undoubtedly an area where feedlot veterinarians can have very positive effects on the welfare of feedlot cattle, while at the same time contributing to the operation’s profitability, since such diseases will both diminish productivity and cost money to treat.

Diet

Arguably, the principal welfare problem for feedlot cattle is dietary.  The natural diet for cattle is forage. Under feedlot conditions, the diet for cattle consists of 70 to 90% grain. Such a “hot” diet tends to create an acidotic metabolic state, which in turn disposes the animals towards digestive problems including bloat, diarrhea, and most significantly, ruminal and liver abscesses, the frequency of which, according to USDA, can lead to condemnation of 40% of livers from slaughtered feedlot cattle. So essential is forage to the well-being of cattle that the 1989 Swedish farm animal welfare law granted to cattle “in perpetuity the right to graze.”

The question that obviously arises is as follows: If a very high grain diet predisposes the animals to disease, why are the animals fed in this manner? The answer is extremely typical of industrialized agriculture as opposed to husbandry agriculture. It is simply that the productivity of the animals that are not adversely affected economically outweighs the costs of the disease induced! This is, of course, a mindset significantly inimical to good husbandry, where economic productivity and animal welfare were inextricably bound up together.

A few years ago, I was preparing a keynote speech for a large feedlot company. In the course of composing my talk, I asked myself the question of how much forage would need to be added to current feedlot diets to minimize intestinal disease. Much to my amazement, I discovered that the answer to this question was not known. As a result, together with some of my colleagues in the CSU Department of Animal Sciences, we are working on research aimed at providing the answer, and hopefully improving the health status of these animals. Such an approach could also be undertaken by feedlot veterinarians and nutritionists on an informal basis.

Currently, liver abscesses are controlled by adding antibiotics, primarily Tylosin, to the diet of feedlot cattle. However, given current international societal concerns about the development of antimicrobial- resistant bacteria, one can suspect that the days of Tylosin are numbered, again demonstrating the desirability of feedlot veterinarians developing alternative methods for controlling liver abscesses.  Such methods are desirable not only from the perspective of animal health and well-being, but also in terms of the societal image of the beef industry. In my experience, many feedlot owners are extremely well- grounded in husbandry, and are also well-educated, and would be favorably disposed towards innovative solutions.

Welfare is good business

Some of the welfare problems arising in feedlots replicate the same problems that one finds in extensive ranching. In particular, castration and dehorning are often performed on feedlot animals. Such surgical procedures performed on older animals are inherently more problematic than when they are performed on calves, as bleeding is harder to control, and it is more difficult to manage the larger animals.  As indicated in my previous article, it is appalling that there are no available analgesics for use in food animals. This is an area where unified veterinary voices could presumably affect change in the status quo and mitigate the pain suffered by feedlot animals.

Feedlot owners and managers are generally a unique combination of astute businessmen and bearers of the cowboy ethic of good husbandry. It should therefore be far easier to convince them of ethical change, especially change that works in their financial interests, than it is to similarly convince ranchers, for whom numerous practices are sanctified by tradition. They should therefore be aware of the extent to which society is averse to confinement agriculture. It is thus in their interest to  show  the public that the feedlot is nowhere near as violative of animal nature and animal welfare as are high confinement  poultry, egg and swine systems. In fact, I have often asked such people how they see these other confinement systems. Their usual response is well- epitomized by the following: I asked a Colorado cattle feeder his view of such high confinement production systems. His response was extremely indicative: “If I had to raise animals the way the chicken people do, I would get the hell out of the business.”

It is therefore congruent with the ethic of cattle feeders to minimize the erosion of animal welfare in feedlots, and to demonstrate to a public ever more conscious of animal welfare considerations that feedlots are far more humane than other confinement systems. Consider for example hot- iron branding. Branding is a form of permanent identification originally developed by the Egyptians some 3000 years ago. Hieroglyphics have been found depicting cattle being branded. Branding works by creating a third degree burn destroying the melanocytes (pigmentation cells) and leaving a permanent mark. Ranchers justify branding in multiple ways: It allows them to separate their cattle from those of the neighbors under mixed range conditions; it provides a form of permanent identification mandated by law in many Western states; it thereby makes rustling of cattle more difficult; it preserves an important part of the Western heritage; and it provides an occasion for coming together. (One Wyoming rancher informed me that his sons, who now live far away from Wyoming, are more likely to come home to help him with branding, than to celebrate Christmas.)

The general public, however, does not share this view. I was lecturing at a major feedlot in California, when the wife of the beef buyer for a supermarket chain asked to speak to me privately. She told me that her husband had taken her to a branding of calves, and that it was the “cruelest event she ever witnessed,” and then she started to cry. Videos of brandings have appeared on You Tube, and for many people, negatively colored their view of the beef industry.

One can argue with the above justifications for branding provided by ranchers, but they are even more implausible when applied to feedlots, where the animals do not range over great distances, and are unlikely to be stolen. (Actually, branding does little to prevent rustling even on ranches. Thieves drive up to large ranches, cut fences, slaughter the animals and steal them as beef.) Abandoning branding of feedlot cattle provides a superb example of what Plato would call “making a virtue of necessity.” There is absolutely no reason that branding for feedlot animals cannot be replaced by electronic methods of identification such as microchips or retinal identification. Adopting such a policy would represent a major commitment by feeders to animal welfare. It is ironic that the beef industry, perennially seeking a marketing feature helping it compete with chicken and pork, which are considerably cheaper for the consumer, has not seized upon animal welfare. A parallel argument can readily be advanced regarding utilization of anesthesia and analgesia for pain control in castration and dehorning, which are patently painful surgical procedures.

A final example of animal welfare considerations in feedlots is provided by how the cattle are handled. There should be zero tolerance for rough handling or for the use of the hotshot under normal circumstances. It is well-known that rough handling stresses cattle and interferes with productivity. My colleague, Temple Grandin, has pioneered in developing handling methods that work with the animals’ biological and psychological natures, and thereby minimize fear and stress. Veterinarians are the natural vehicle for educating feedlot workers in these methods. Once again, we see an example of the congruence of good welfare and productivity.

In sum, with some modification, feedlots could become the exemplar for socially acceptable confinement agriculture. Making these modifications without being forced to do so can garner additional support and credibility for the industry. The target to aim for is good husbandry, which an excellent way to describe what society desires and expects from confinement agriculture.

In part 3 of this series, Dr. Rollin will address ethical considerations for dairy operations. For part 1, addressing the cow-calf sector, refer to the March-April 2017 issue or the digital edition on BovineVetOnline.com.

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More on feedlot lameness

For more information, refer to “Perception of lameness management, education, and effects on animal welfare of feedlot cattle by consulting nutritionists, veterinarians, and feedlot managers,” Terell SP, Thomson DU, Reinhardt CD, Apley MD, Larson CK, Stackhouse-Lawson KR, 2014, Bovine Practitioner 48: 53-60.