Healthy Economy

Caring for Cows

Studies show that a stressed animal is more likely to be a sick, scrawny, infertile animal — hardly the formula for business success if you’re a rancher or dairyman.

“Frightening and stressing cattle is bad because it’s wrong to treat animals badly, and it’s also bad business.”
— Temple Grandin, Animals Make Us Human

Oregon State staff and students round up beef cattle on the Zumwalt Prairie near Enterprise. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

By Lee Anna Sherman

The Black Baldies cluster inside the holding pen as if glued together, waiting. They know the drill. Quietly, a cowboy coaxes the cows toward the sorting shed, where they’re about to be artificially inseminated. One by one, they enter the “squeeze chute,” a hydraulic contraption that closes in around the animal to hold her steady. Over bursts of disgruntled mooing, a second man reads out a number printed on each cow’s ear tag as a research assistant records it in a ledger. Ranch manager Kenny Fite, wearing hot-pink latex gloves up to his elbows, administers the bull semen, which has been chilling in a giant vat of liquid nitrogen.

A few of the cows balk, but most endure the process with placid resignation. Cattle prods (“hot shots”) are forbidden here at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union. Yelling, too, is verboten. Instead, Fite and his team gentle their cows into compliance. It helps that the chute’s design was inspired by Temple Grandin, the internationally renowned animal-behavior expert who gave several lectures at Oregon State in 2010. Her innate sensitivity to animals’ feelings and fears has revolutionized livestock handling.

“You have to remain calm and have patience,” explains Oregon State researcher Reinaldo Cooke, who frequently cites Grandin in his work at the other Eastern Oregon ag research center in Burns. Cooke’s cattle-handling expertise is in demand all over, garnering invitations to speak and consult across the American West and abroad.

“Cattle have their own temperament, just like people,” says Cooke, who grew up on the rangelands of Brazil. “Some are more prone to stress, which causes problems for health and reproduction.”

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That’s why discovering ways to minimize stress in cattle is a research priority in Cooke’s lab. Handling by humans — vaccination, castration, insemination, supplementation, transportation, especially the long haul from ranch to feedlot — can suppress a cow’s immune system, depress her appetite and disrupt her hormonal balance. Studies show that a stressed animal is more likely to be a sick, scrawny, infertile animal — hardly the formula for business success if you’re a rancher or dairyman.

The stakes are huge. In Oregon, beef and milk ranked third and fourth, dollar-wise, among farm and ranch commodities for 2011. For these industries, together worth more than $1 billion, low-stress handling isn’t just a check-off box on the compliance list for animal-care protocols overseen by OSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (see “The Ethic of Care,” Terra, Fall 2012). It’s not even just the right thing to do for the animals. Humane, ethical care is critical to growers’ bottom line.

“In our industry if we were treating the animals bad, we would not be successful,” notes Dave Bohnert, director of the Burns research center. “The poor managers, the people who aren’t doing it right, aren’t going to be in business that long.”

When the subject of livestock abuse comes up, he frowns deeply. He recalls the notorious 2009 incident in California when hidden cameras captured a sick cow being pushed along a concrete floor by a forklift. The video went viral, playing over and over on TV for several news cycles — the animal-abuse equivalent of the Rodney King police beating. It sickened the nation. And it outraged Bohnert.

“All it takes is one or two bad events where you’ve got some bad employees or managers, where you’ve got downed cows that are being mistreated or you’ve got starved horses or cattle, and it’s a black eye for the whole industry,” Bohnert grouses. “But in reality, that’s a very, very small proportion of our industry.”

Red Tape for a Reason

If you drive east from Corvallis along Highway 20 into Malheur County — one of Oregon’s top beef-producing counties with 100,000 head — you might wonder how cattle can thrive here at all. Desert vegetation — sage, rabbitbrush, juniper, Ponderosa pine — stretches from horizon to horizon. Rain is rare. Frost is frequent. And grass is green for just over a nanosecond. For cows, that means eating dry, fibrous forage or hay much of the year. Out here, extra protein and other nutrients are essential supplements to the poor-quality grasses.

In Burns, Bohnert devotes much of his time to nutrition research, analyzing protein, fiber, nitrogen and mineral content to design optimal diets. So does Tim DelCurto, his counterpart farther east in Union. Rangeland ecology, too, gets a great deal of scrutiny at OSU. But whether the scientists are studying stress by measuring cortisol (a stress-triggered hormone), diet by analyzing ruminal fermentation (digestion), or ecology by tracking cattle via GPS collars, each study must pass muster with the university’s animal-care protocols.

There was some grumbling in the beginning, back when attending veterinarian Helen Diggs tightened up on reporting and spearheaded OSU’s accreditation review by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

“A few people had to be dragged to the table screaming, ‘I don’t know why I have to justify this!’” Bohnert recalls. “The new daily reporting system, I’ll admit, was something I initially felt was going to be a royal pain in the neck. Every day, I’ve got to log into it and let OSU’s attending veterinarian know that our animals are being cared for properly and everything’s OK. Sometimes it’s frustrating, the red tape you have to go through. However, I understand and acknowledge that we need to do everything in our power to make sure that OSU’s animals are treated properly and that we can document proper care. That’s just the cost of doing animal research.”

An Evolution in Attitudes

Teddy, a Black Angus with a white blaze on his forehead, looks formidable, weighing upwards of 1,300 pounds. Yet this hulking creature that could knock you flat with a well-aimed kick is scared of the dark. “Cows are just like big babies,” says pre-vet teaching assistant Erin Mason, who’s giving an animal-facilities tour on campus for students enrolled in ANS 121, Intro to Animal Sciences. Learning the stressors for cows — loud noises, dark places, sudden motions, unfamiliar routines — is Chapter 1 for anyone who wants to work with livestock.

In his left side, Teddy has a “cannula,” a surgically implanted rubber window something like a porthole. Through this porthole, the contents of his stomach can be easily accessed and analyzed for teaching and research. Given a choice, Teddy surely would prefer grazing on the open range to facing a clump of wide-eyed undergrads who are about to stick their arms inside his stomach. Still, as a teaching cow at OSU, he gets top-notch treatment in strict adherence to animal-care protocols. And soon, he’ll be residing in a new, high-tech facility equipped with the latest in Temple Grandin designs. Phase 1 of the James E. Oldfield Animal Teaching Facility on the Corvallis campus opened in the fall. Phases 2, 3 and 4 will be rolled out over the next several years.

Ballooning interest in Animal and Rangeland Sciences, whose enrollment has spiked four-fold since the 1990s, brings with it an evolution in attitudes in the department and across all disciplines that work with animals. One signal: A tenure-track position has been created to study the “human-animal bond.” Another sign: VM 739 (Veterinary Medical Ethics) and ANS 315 (Contentious Social Issues in Animal Agriculture) are now part of the curriculum at Oregon State (see sidebar). Perhaps the strongest indicator of Oregon State’s animal-welfare mindfulness is the flying-colors report conferred on the university by AAALAC along with whole-campus accreditation in March 2012.

“We’ve changed so much in Oregon since I came here in the late ‘90s,” says Bohnert. “I think there’s a bigger awareness. In our industry, in general, we realize that we want to minimize the pain and stress to animals.”