December 04, 2014

The science behind beef cattle welfare

National Agricultural Library, CASE IH, American Science of Animal Science, beef cattle, feeding, nutrition, animal science, animal agriculture

By Samantha Walker, ASAS Communications

So many people from different backgrounds discuss the concept of animal welfare that a universal definition is hard to pin down. During the Bill E. Kunkle Interdisciplinary Beef Symposium, researchers discussed concepts related to beef cattle welfare and stress in an attempt to standardize a definition of welfare based on science.

The symposium was held at the Southern Section meeting of the American Society of Animal Science in Dallas, Texas, on February 3, 2014. A brief overview of the entire symposium (“Beef cattle welfare and stress,” by Jeffrey Lehmkuhler at the University of Kentucky and colleagues) can be found in the December 2014 Journal of Animal Science. The following subsections recap the four published reviews from the symposium.

A wicked problem

Coauthors J. L. Lyles and M. S. Calvo-Lorenzo from Oklahoma State University outline today’s major concerns and scientific developments associated with beef cattle welfare.

Current welfare challenges identified by the authors include weather extremes, husbandry practices that cause pain, improper handling of the animals, transitional events such as weaning and transportation, and use of modern biotechnologies.

In the article, they describe welfare in the beef industry as a “wicked problem,” meaning beef welfare is not an easy problem to solve. The complexity of beef welfare is broken into four components:

  1. “No definitive formulation of the problem exists.”
  2. “The solution is not true or false, but, rather, better or worse.”
  3. “Stakeholders have radically different frames of reference about the problem.”
  4. “The underlying cause-and-effect relationships are complex, systemic, and either unknown or highly uncertain.”

Furthermore, the authors stress the need to align the concepts of welfare and sustainable production.

“Although welfare and sustainability may seem to be two unrelated areas, the concept of minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs in the beef production system means that cattle must be efficient in converting nutrients and inedible food products into muscle mass,” the authors wrote. “This concept can only be achieved if animals are raised in a manner in which they experience optimal states of health and behavior.”

Read an abstract of the article, “Practical developments in managing animal welfare in beef cattle: What does the future hold?” here.

All about stress

Coauthors J. A. Carroll and N. C. Burdick Sanchez from the USDA-ARS Livestock Issues Research Unit in Lubbock, Texas, write about the potential positive effects of stress hormones via enhanced immune function in beef cattle.

It is generally thought that stress hormones suppress immune responses, but this Journal of Animal Science article suggests certain kinds of stress can result in improved immune function.

The authors discuss the difference between chronic stress and periodic, acute stress.

Acute stress primes the immune system to prepare for subsequent infections. Digestive function is decreased and blood flow is redistributed to organs and tissues essential for coping with stress.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, suppresses overall immune function. Digestive function is disrupted and muscle and adipose tissues are broken down, making animals more susceptible to various diseases.

Knowing the difference between a stress response and an immune response can be challenging.

“For example, body temperature, blood flow, digestive capabilities, respiration, and heart rate can all be influenced independently by stress, but are also influenced by the immune status of an animal,” write the authors.

The authors also discuss better ways to identify and measure levels of stress and immune function, which could include endocrine biomarkers, metabolic markers and the use of immune cells as biomarkers.

An abstract of the article, “Overlapping physiological responses and endocrine biomarkers that are indicative of stress responsiveness and immune function in beef cattle,” is available here.

Managing weather-related stress

Under extreme weather conditions, whether hot or cold, chronic environmental stress can result in beef cattle fatalities.

For example, a heat wave in 2011 resulted in the loss of almost 15,000 cattle across five states. Early winter storms in 2013 ended with a loss of over 25,000 cattle across the Great Plains.

Author T. L. Mader, University of Nebraska, writes about the various ways producers can manage their cattle to mitigate the effects of extreme cold and extreme heat.

During winter months, Mader suggests the following guidelines for cattle housed in feedlot pens and other areas:

  • “Facilities should be designed to properly drain water away from areas where animals normally accumulate.”
  • “Pushing snow out of pens or at least to the low end of the facilities will minimize the effects of gradual melting and aid in drying out resting areas.”
  • “Rough (frozen) surfaces that may impede access to feed and water should be smoothed out or knocked down.”
  • “Space allocation per animal should be doubled (the added space minimizes mud accumulation and allows for greater access to dry areas for animals to lie down).”
  • “If animals are prone to getting wet, then use bedding and/or structures that provide wind protection while minimizing moisture effects.”

During hot summer months, strategies for reducing heat stress include restricted/managed feed programs, management of water temperature and availability, and use of shade and sprinkling systems.

According to the article, there is a commonly held perception that sprinklers provide greater heat stress relief than shade or misting because of heat loss associated with evaporation. However, some data suggest shade provides greater and more consistent relief than sprinkling.

Read an abstract of the article, “Animal welfare concerns for cattle exposed to adverse environmental concerns,” here.

How temperament affects stress

Cattle whose temperaments are evaluated as “excitable” are found to have heightened stress-related physiological responses, compared with cattle with “adequate” temperaments.

Author R. F. Cooke, Oregon State University, and his research colleagues define temperament as “the fear-related behavioral responses of cattle when exposed to human handling.”

Using several methods of evaluation, Cooke’s research team has found that cattle temperament impacts productive, reproductive and health characteristics of beef cattle independent of their breed.

“Managing beef herds for adequate temperament is imperative for personnel and animal welfare as well as optimal production efficiency in beef operations,” writes Cooke.

The author suggests that temperament should be included in selection and culling criteria, and also advocates frequent exposure of young cattle to human handling.

Read an abstract of the article, “Temperament and acclimation to human handling influence growth, health and reproductive responses in Bos taurus and Bos indicus cattle,” here.


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