Meeting meat quality expectations
From the mother’s nutrition before the calf is born to whether or not it’s preconditioned, these factors can play a role in how calves survive or thrive on the feedlot, including whether they’re susceptible to bovine respiratory disease. These factors can also affect whether the cow handles the trip to the plant well and stands in the pen calmly before they’re getting ready to go up the snake.
“I think a lot of the issues we deal with at the plant are a culmination of a lot of past experiences, not just one thing,” Martin says.
This is one of the hardest parts of her research, she says, because she can’t point to one silver bullet that will fix all of these issues. Instead, it’s a matter of working on several factors long before the animal reaches the plant that will help the animal not have that dark tender loin or not have that calf lame and fatigued when it gets to the plant.
“This just shows that a lot of wellbeing issues are very complex issues that start at the beginning. And that’s a specific challenge for the beef industry, because producers often don’t see their calves all the way through the plant, they don’t get that cut-out sheet, so they don’t have that understanding of how their genetic decisions and how their vaccination decisions are ultimately impacting their product down the road. And they’re certainly not seeing the financial payoff for doing the right thing,” Martin says.
As an industry, she says, if we’re going to mitigate these issues at the plant we’re going to have to find a way to go all the way back to the start with the producers and track those calves. And then we’re going to have to pay producers who are doing the right thing to encourage that to be the norm.
She points to tools like Cargill’s sustainability program in Canada and how beneficial that’s been to producers. They’re a main supplier to McDonald’s, she says, and McDonald’s as a corporate company cares a lot about wellbeing and has driven a lot of change in the industry.
“Because McDonald’s has said this is something we’re willing to pay for, they can take that value all the way back to the producer. And the result is a substantial payoff for producers,” she says. “Depending on the markets, it can sometimes result in double the profits on each calf, depending on the margins. So I think we do have the ability to pay producers to do it.”
Martin says she’s seen a lot of good calves that, even when markets are not where producers want them to be, they still top the market because buyers know that those calves aren’t going to get sick when they go to the feedlot.
“And I think that’s something we’re also realizing with natural or antibiotic-free programs, is that they help support efforts that include vaccination and preconditioning that keep cattle in these programs and make the cattle more valuable,” she says. “They key is getting the right entities on board, from the retailer to the packer to the feed yard all the way back to the producer. And linking all of those things up in the beef industry has always been a struggle for us, but that’s something that I think if we can make that happen we can make strides on the wellbeing front.”
Read more about how to bridge the gap between cattle welfare and wellbeing, including advice to handle activists, here.