My daughter came home from school with tears in her eyes one day last week. She is a “free spirit” who generally prefers to ride her horse or spend her time surrounded by all of the animals on our farm. There are times when she has a very difficult time “fitting in”. I am truly amazed (and generally horrified) that at her age (4th grade), there is a popular crowd at school and in order to be a part of it you are supposed to have a boyfriend. I was furious when I learned that she was being teased and made fun of at school because she did not meet the “criteria” for the popular crowd. We had a long talk last weekend about respecting and being true to your core values while also taking pride in who you are. We also talked about the fact that sometimes children (or adults) are mean and display behavior that is not humane.
Webster defines humane as “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for other human beings or animals.” It is certainly a current “buzz word” in today’s society because there is more and more popular media discussion of animal welfare. There are many different groups of people currently attempting to define the word “humane” as it applies to animals. I believe very strongly that the word humane must be defined on the level of the animal who is receiving the care. This is especially true when you are providing care for a prey animal like a bovine (calf) who thinks so very differently from a human. While studying books is a great way to learn, prey animal care is very complex and I believe that to truly understand how to “think like a calf” you need to have hands on experience caring for that calf. Therefore, I believe that dedicated farmers and ranchers like myself (who spend our lives working with cattle), along with our veterinarians and professional consultants, are the most qualified people to define humane bovine care. As we discuss and define humane, it is important to remember that the cattle in my feed yard are not pets. They are food animals that are raised for the express purpose of nourishing us. It is my job to balance humane bovine care with the ability to grow healthy beef in an environmentally responsible way.
Cattle are genetically programmed to view the world very differently than humans do (they are prey animals and we are predators). This provides a challenge for us (as humans) as we attempt to define humane care. It is impossible for a calf to think or act like a human, therefore, I must think like a calf to ensure that the care that I offer to the animal is humane in the way that it matters most—to the calf! He is, after all, the one that is receiving the care.
As I pointed out with my opening story, humane care is what we strive for as humans but not always what happens. It is the same with animals. Humane care is a goal to strive for. As I care for my cattle, there are circumstances out of my control (like Mother Nature) that will affect the well-being and care of my animals. My job is to “set my animals up for success” so that they can thrive no matter what environment they live in.
A researcher named Dr. John Webster helped to develop the Five Freedoms for Cattle back in the late 1970’s. I would like to use them here to help define the word humane as it applies to cattle care.
1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition.
2. Freedom from discomfort.
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
4. Freedom to express normal behavior.
5. Freedom from fear and distress.
While I do not always accomplish each of these five freedoms, they are the goal that I strive for in my cattle care. After spending the last 15 years watching cattle interact, I believe that these 5 “freedoms” do a nice job directing me toward humane care. Fresh feed and water, a comfortable place to rest, good health, the ability to instinctually play and interact with herd mates, and safety from predators are all things that are important to a bovine.
In next Tuesday’s post, I am going to take the 5 Freedoms one step further and share with you what I feel is a great “Recipe” for humane care. It was developed by cattle caregivers, veterinarians and animal welfare researchers and it is called the Beef Quality Assurance Feed Yard Assessment. I believe that it offers the best practical compromise in ensuring a blend of humane care and human food safety for beef cattle. I use it at my feed yard to audit my crew and I’s performance as we care for cattle and raise beef.
Because I am an animal lover, humane care is a top priority for me. Because I am a farmer who grows food, human food safety and quality is also a top priority for me. Because I believe that I must remain true to the core values that make me the person that I am, I must find a way to practically blend these two priorities together as I care for my beef cattle.