When feedlot and dairy workers enjoy their jobs, feel empowered to make decisions and understand the reasons behind their tasks, they are most likely to provide good animal husbandry, resulting in optimum animal performance.
That message came through in a presentation from Elanco’s Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, PhD, during the recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference. Veterinarians, she adds, are well-positioned to work with managers and crews to foster positive attitudes and thus improve welfare, making her presentation an ideal fit for the conference theme of “Become Indispensable.”
As animal welfare becomes a growing concern among consumers, Calvo-Lorenzo stressed the importance of the human element, and worker attitudes in particular, alongside more visible factors such as facilities and protocols. The industry, she adds, has largely adopted the “three pillars” approach toward sustainability, including environmental, financial and social elements. Welfare of livestock and the well-being of workers fit in the category of social acceptability.
While research data on the relationship between worker attitudes and animal welfare are sparse, some studies have indicated that encouraging positive worker attitudes and behavior can improve cattle performance metrics such as milk yield. In a recent Texas A&M University study in Texas feedlots, researchers found that employees generally have empathy toward cattle, positive relationships with coworkers and high job satisfaction. They found though, that worker attitudes toward specific tasks such as euthanasia differed between employee groups such as doctoring crews, pen riders or feed-truck drivers.
The researchers found other cases where attitudes could affect behavior. Overall, for example, workers have more negative perceptions of dairy-breed cattle in the feedlot compared with beef breeds. This suggests an opportunity for managers or veterinarians to provide education and training specifically for confidently handling dairy-breed cattle.
For cattle crews, noise, weather, heavy workloads, long hours and uncooperative cattle create potential safety hazards and, along with social factors such as language barriers and poor leadership, contribute to negative attitudes. Some of those challenges simply come with the job, but employers can minimize problems by involving workers in planning, problem-solving, self -assessment and competency-based training.
Calvo-Lorenzo acknowledges that managers face challenges in hiring reliable workers with livestock skills in a competitive market. This makes retention of skilled workers more critical than ever, and increases the value of investments in training, worker comfort, benefits, incentives and opportunities for advancement more valuable than ever.
Employers also need to understand cultural differences and social challenges in honing their employee-relations skills. Immigrant workers, for example, often have left their families in their home countries, and send a significant percentage of their income home. For some, their lives become centered on work and their coworkers. If they feel out-of-place, unappreciated and unsure of their responsibilities, stress can lead to behavior that is negative for animal welfare. “Positive attitudes correlate with positive behavior, Calvo-Lorenzo says.
For more on “becoming indispensable” from the AABP conference, see these articles on BovineVetOnline.com: