Raising Cattle Right: Humane & Responsible Stockmanship
Certified Piedmontese cattle are raised under the notion that a sustainable relationship among ranchers, cattle, and the land on which cattle are raised is vital to responsible beef production, and low-stress, humane handling practices are certainly part of that vision.
Raising cattle humanely and responsibly requires an ongoing commitment to quality and integrity in every step of the process. For Certified Piedmontese ranchers, this means that cattle are allowed access to open pastures, are never given hormones, steroids, or antibiotics, and are handled humanely at every level of production.
Over the past decade, low-stress cattle handling techniques have been popularized in animal science and stockmanship. Research shows that it is the ideal environment to raise cattle.
All animals have many control mechanisms that maintain the steady state of the body and brain that is essential for life. When certain factors in an animal's environment cause strain or distress, its control mechanisms become overtaxed and no longer work effectively and efficiently: The animal is stressed, leading to reduced productivity and affecting its state of health and nutrition.
"The goal is to use the animal's natural instincts to get them to do what you need them to do without putting a lot of excess pressure or stress on them," says Ron Gill, Ph.D., Extension Animal Science at Texas A&M University.
Low-stress cattle handling is built upon observing and learning the natural instinct and behaviors of the cattle and deriving techniques to keep them calm and healthy. According to Steve Cote of the National Resources Conservation Service in Arco, Idaho, "Low-stress handling is based on accommodating livestock's innate mental and emotional characteristics to lower stress on the animals."
"Cattle are prey animals, and a lot of cattle-handling techniques are based on the way the calves see the situation, not the way the handler sees the situation," says Brian Friesen, a BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) certified rancher. He implements these practices on his ranch in central Nebraska, where he raises Piedmontese cattle in Certified Piedmontese's Grass Fed Grass Finished Program.
As the success of low-stress techniques spreads, ranchers are increasingly focused on improving their stockmanship skills through training workshops, seminars, and earning the BQA certification. The Beef Quality Assurance Program is a national program that provides proper management techniques on behalf of the betterment within every segment of the beef cattle industry, including training in low-stress stockmanship techniques as part of the certification process.
An example of employing low-stress techniques is how our ranchers approach high-stress periods when cattle are most susceptible to illness. The weaning period is necessary for beef cattle raising and one of the most stressful times for calves and ranchers.
Historically, calves separated from their mothers during weaning were left to bawl or whine as they learned to function independently. Traditional methods of separating the calves from their mothers include cutting off all visual and hearing contact, which is a jarring experience that is highly stressful. The calves have a high sickness rate, which decreases the quantity of yield for ranchers.
Effective stockmanship brings about significant changes to cattle raising practices with low-stress handling, seeking to ease the distress for weaning calves. "With low-stress handling, ranchers would actually go out there and work with those cattle to put them at ease. The ranchers might actually become a source of leadership for the calves that are used to their mothers telling them where to go and when to go," says Ron Gill. "Essentially, the calves have to come to see the rancher as their caregiver."
By communicating trust and understanding during this period of high stress, ranchers can improve the quality of life for both the cattle and the ranchers working with them. Brain Friesen, who has redesigned the facilities on his ranch to manage the stress in his cattle, notes that the biggest overall change has been the ranchers' attitudes, who do not force the cattle to respond to their needs. Instead, ranchers would respond to the needs of the cattle by understanding and embracing their natural tendencies, such as using low-stress methods of mustering and moving livestock through positive encouragement instead of the traditional fear response.
Keeping Cattle Calm, Happy, and Healthy
Reducing the stress on cattle keeps them calm and contributes to the overall health of the animals.
"It's no different than in humans," says Ron Gill, "When we get stressed, our immune system is depressed, and we cannot fight off the normal bacteria in our surrounding environment."
Healthy cattle that do not easily fall sick would not require antibiotics. Certified Piedmontese is part of USDA's Never Ever 3 (NE3)Program, which means all cattle in the Certified Piedmontese Program never receive added growth hormones, antibiotics, animal by-products, or steroids. In the event that an animal falls sick and requires antibiotics to recover, it will be treated and removed from the program.
If cattle are stressed, the quality of beef will also suffer. Cattle that are not handled under low-stress conditions tend to experience more bruising, which detracts from the quality of life for the animal, as well as the quality of the beef for the consumer. Ultimately, Certified Piedmontese ranchers rely on effective stockmanship and low-stress handling to produce happier, healthier cattle, and better beef for our consumers.
As an additional bonus, low-stress practices are also less harmful to the environment in which cattle are raised. According to Steve Cote, author of Stockmanship and Handling Cattle on the Range, "Using low-stress handling, it is possible to place and keep a herd together on the uplands to reduce grazing pressure on riparian areas without the use of fences."
This focus on environmental sustainability is a core aspect of the Certified Piedmontese Program and an ongoing priority for the ranchers who are a part of it.