Quiet Power: How Ag Can Embrace Animal Welfare

( Photo courtesy of Miriam Martin )

No yelling, please. Be gentle. Create a calm and comfortable environment. Use purposeful pressure. These steps may sound simple, and they are hard. But the cattlemen who find way to practice them may receive dividends in higher-quality meat.

An animal’s experiences stay with it, not only in its temperament when it arrives at the plant or how it handles its trip to the plant, but also in its carcass and in its meat quality characteristics, says Miriam Martin, a graduate research assistant at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Martin grew up on a diversified farm in North Central Missouri, and since then her studies have led her on a journey to help producers and meat plants provide topnotch care in practical ways that support the industry and the people who supply our protein.

Who is Miriam Martin?

Temple Grandin uses the words good student and hard worker to describe her former student. And Martin is both of these things. She’s also a quintessential farm kid with an ag background. “I got up at 5:30 and did chores every morning. Cattle and hogs are our two main species of interest.” She was involved in 4-H and was a state FFA officer, and she was on the livestock judging team at University of Missouri.

It was an internship for JBS that ignited her interest in meat science. She says it helped her better understand the end product of what she’d grown up producing as a farm kid, and it also put her on a path to learning about cattle welfare.

“Wellbeing is something that starts well before conception, and it’s something we have to think about all the way up to the knock box,” Martin says.

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As she neared the end of her bachelor’s degree, she didn’t feel like she fit with nutrition, reproduction or genetics.

“So I ended up on a phone call with Temple Grandin at Colorado State asking about her livestock behavior and wellbeing program. And she was kind enough to say, ‘Yeah, why don’t you come on out.’”

During the time she was obtaining her masters, she stayed involved in the processing side, and she did a lot of welfare work at the plant, specifically research with Grandin that involved captive bolts.

The research examined whether a longer captive bolt would stop the carcass from kicking.

“Because even though the animal is instantly made unconscious, the spinal cord doesn’t die right away, and the carcass kicks, and it can get dangerous,” Grandin says. “And Cargill thought that maybe if you put a longer bolt on, it would reduce kicking. It did not reduce the kicking, and the Holsteins where worse than the beef cattle, but that’s why you do research, to find these things out.”

Grandin says the study reinforced some of the facts and fiction behind carcass movement.

“A lot of people don’t realize the reason a carcass kicks, even if you cut the head off is that the walking circuit is in the middle of the back, the middle of the spine,” Grandin says. “And you do a lot of damage to the brain, the walking circuit kind of goes berserk. And that’s what causes the kicking.”

A second part of Martin’s master’s work involved research that delved into producers’ feelings about animal welfare and pain management — something Martin is passionate about. “I think it’s going to become more important to our industry as consumers are asking more questions about castration and what we’re doing to mitigate stressful situations, like when we transport calves to the feedlots,” she says.

The research gave her ammunition to prove producers see value in animal handling and care guidelines as well as using pain management — a message that gives credit to the boots-on-the-ground producers.

“That’s something that’s really important to me, my ties as a researcher to producers, because I grew up in that environment. So I try to make sure my research is very relevant and can be applied to help producers,” she says.

She also sees encouraging progress with large protein companies that are starting to delve into wellbeing and sustainability, including finding practical ways to third-party verify what producers are doing on their operations to support the wellbeing of their animals. The key is ensuring these programs offer value and they’re practical for producers to use.

“I decided to get involved in behavior and wellbeing research because I felt like we needed the voice of someone who had a strong agriculture background who really did value producers’ opinions to be that voice in the boardroom,” Martin says.

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Click here to read Bridge the Gap Between Animal Welfare and Wellbeing

After graduating from Colorado State in May 2018, she spent the summer working for Merck, where she was involved in research about consumer perceptions. The 2018 Cattle Care and Well-Being Survey, a comprehensive survey of U.S. beef producers and veterinarians, identified resources, topics and training needed to advance cattle care and well-being.

Angela Baysinger, DVM, the animal welfare lead for Merck North America, says Martin immediately stood out from other internship candidates because of her maturity and passion.

“From her master’s work, she was able to sift out the fact that producers rely heavily on the recommendations from their veterinarian,” Baysinger says. “And if veterinarians aren’t comfortable in recommending pain mitigation, then producers aren’t always likely to do it.”

Martin says her biggest takeaway from the research was that producers are all over the board in terms of the type of programs they need to support their cattle care efforts. There’s no one-size-fits-all program that will serve everyone, because the needs of the producer with 200 cows in Missouri are going to be very different than the needs of the producer with 1,000 cows in the panhandle of northern Nebraska. The producer’s age, region, how many cows they have, whether they’re running stockers or farmer feeders, and so many other factors play into their needs.

Another takeaway from the study: Producers are very trusting of certain people, namely their veterinarian.

“This is great, but we’re putting so much responsibility on them right now. So not only are we wanting them to do their job as a vet, where they’re not necessarily getting paid a lot to do that in the first place. But we’re also telling them they need to be training producers about what their pain management options are and helping them tell their story of how they’re taking care of their animals,” Martin says. “But at the same time animal health companies can take a bit of pressure off of them by giving them resources, like training modules.”

Click next page to read more about how wellbeing can help producers meet meat quality expectations.

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