COLUMN: Ranching and the general welfare of animals

This week a local veterinary clinic and medical suppliers teamed up to thank their customers (ranchers) for their business.

This week a local veterinary clinic and medical suppliers teamed up to thank their customers (ranchers) for their business.

This rancher appreciation night, organized by the Williams Lake Veterinary Clinic, featured a speaker from the University of British Columbia, Dr. Nina von Keyserlingk, who is one of three key people at UBC in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems in the Animal Welfare group.

Ranchers were presented with the latest research in the subject of handling, management and housing of cattle.

Until recently researchers have concentrated on nutrition and the genetics of production (more is better).

While ranchers, when interviewed, certainly care as a whole about the welfare of their livestock, a push by retailers of animal products has recently forced industry to pay attention to those aspects of traditional practices, some of which could be damaging to the marketing of their products.

Many countries to which our industry might export are becoming increasingly concerned about the care and well being of the animals being raised and slaughtered for sale.

Local consumers are the same.

According to Nina Keyserlingk, even though as far back as 1964, a mother raised the issues of how animals in the food system are treated, we still don’t know how much ‘bunkspace’ is needed in feedlots for animals to have comfort (less stress) when being grown and finished for market.

Until recently, the research has simply not been done, however, it is now underway.

We have learned, thanks to the science, that the younger the better when castrating, dehorning and branding of cattle.

Younger animals still feel as much pain, but they heal faster, so less stress.

Surgery is better that the lingering discomfort from the use of elastic bands to castrate calves.

Best practices are evolving.

The Beef Cattle Code of Practice, which addresses pain management, among other things, is already out of date, but it brought in (as of January, 2016) new rules about the use of pain management.

While this code can be read online or a copy can be obtained easily, I recommend talking to your vet about drugs that can be administered to relieve pain on necessary procedures.

Dr. Keyserlingk asserts that these are the unavoidable stresses: branding, castration, vaccination, trucking.

Avoidable stresses are: poor handling, over-stocking, overuse of prods, not maintaining good animal health, insufficient water, rough handling, allowing unskilled helpers in castrating, and some other issues.

Some of the controversies that are still with us are: age of dehorning, castration, winter calving, how long (if at all) should animals be finished on grain, auctions (this we didn’t get into; must be the stress involved).

This has been a short piece on a topical subject which we all  face as producers and as consumers.

All in all our animals live a good life with lots of food, space, shelter and health care.

But we can’t rest on our laurels.

Lets get out ahead of the remaining and developing issues.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which is starting at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.