Handle Sick Cows Properly

March 31, 2010 07:00 PM

By Jim Dickrell, editor, Dairy Today


A few weeks ago, I attended the High Plains Dairy Conference and Tour and had one of those eye-popping moments that only come when you get out of your normal frame of reference.


As part of the tour of dairies and heifer ranches, our tour bus swung into Cargill Cattle Feeders just west of Dalhart, Texas. This facility had 81,000 head of mostly black cattle on feed, and ships 170,000 head annually. I admit it. I'm cattle yard virgin. I've seen photos, but I've never actually been a 400-acre facility of pen-to-pen cattle.


This facility has its own feed mill, and processes and feeds about 1,000 tons of TMR daily. It houses a string of 40 horses needed to work this many cattle. The facility has some age to it, built back in the 1970s, but it is well organized with just 60 employees handling this volume of cattle and feed and, yes, manure.


As our bus made its way back through the feed alleys, a large, 10-yard capacity truck was picking up deads. Dalhart has suffered one of its roughest winters in memory, and another 5” of snow had come over night. Some of the weaker cattle, housed in open lots, succumbed.


Scott Nelson, general manager of the facility and our tour director, didn't flinch. On a facility this size, death happens. It just happens on a little bit bigger scale than most of us on the bus are accustomed.


What matters, says Nelson, is how feed yard personnel handle sick animals, and at what stage they euthanize animals that are really too sick to doctor. Shipping to market is not an option at this feedyard.


In fact, after the Westland/Hallmark fiasco in California and a similar incident at Hereford, Tex. nearly two years, the Dalhart slaughter plant simply refuses to take any downer cattle. Nelson agrees with this stance.


Slaughter plant managers now realize that animal rights groups probably have undercover employees currently working at livestock slaughter plants. If more abuse happens, they will be recorded for YouTube and released to the world.


"If we continue to send downer cows to harvest facilities, animal rights groups will shut these facilities down,” says Nelson. "There will be a lot more Hallmarks, and it will eventually hit your pocket. You will lose these facilities one by one.”


That's why Cargill has decided to euthanize downers as quickly as possible. "Five percent of cull cattle probably shouldn't be marketed,” says Nelson. "And I realize it is an equity hit to euthanize, but it has to be done.”


The cattle industry—and the dairy industry—need to take a proactive approach to handling cull cattle. Nelson quietly pleaded with dairy producers on the tour to become part of that solution.


There's never been a better time to start. With milk prices in the doldrums and cull cows commanding some pretty decent bucks, now is the time cull. But downers and potential downers simply can't be tolerated. They have no place in the food chain. (Read "A Downer for Dairy.”)

"Leverage your good image as dairy producers with the American consumer to sell more beef,” Nelson urges. "Those Happy Cows eventually have to go into hamburger. They're just changing careers.”

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