Category Archives: Animal Welfare

S.E.F.A — A Cowgirl’s HACCP Plan…

My 13 year old blonde cowgirl grew up at a cattle feed yard. She learned about cattle, Beef Quality Assurance and HACCP practices as she learned how to walk and talk — internalizing them during her formative years.  Megan lives life with an interesting blend of faith, quiet confidence, determination, and a never ending smile.  Her adventurous spirit blended with the practical skills learned on the farm create a unique package.

Although this picture is several years old, the look on her face as she lopes her beloved horse says it all...

Although this picture is several years old, the look on her face as she lopes her beloved horse says it all…

Some might say that Megan is a bit of a “wild woman”, but the truth is that underneath her outwardly exuberant personality is a calm problem solver.  She holds steadfast under pressure and always has a plan.  I attribute a lot of that ability to the hours that we spend together at the feed yard.  During those times, I expect her to focus, be tough, and make good decisions — constantly adjusting to the situation in order to ensure the best possible outcome.  This skill carries over into other facets of her life.

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Sometime in the middle of track season this spring, I heard Megan refer to her S.E.F.A. kit.  I was focused on something else at the time so I did not ask her about it.  A few weeks later, I found a black cosmetic bag with bright pink duck tape on the front.  It was filled with first aid tools: neosporin, band aids, vasoline, q-tips, anti-itch cream, chap stick, and ibuporfen.

Printed on the pink duct tape was the acronym:

S: Super

E: Extreme

F: Freak

A: Accident Kit…

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I have to admit that I laughed when I first saw the S.E.F.A kit.  It was just so Megan: Confident enough to always engage, but smart enough to be prepared for any outcome.  Megan knows that there are no guarantees in life.  She lives on a farm where life is sometimes very harsh and even the best plan can go awry.

I have taught her to accept that behind every adversity is the opportunity for improvement. To face life head on: confident enough to expect the best, but realistic enough to be prepared for the worst.

When I finally asked my favorite blonde cowgirl about her S.E.F.A kit, she smiled and said:

“Mom, it’s my HACCP plan”.

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Mind the Fence, Shut the Gate, and Respect the Animals That Bring You Food…

While I grew up in urban West Palm Beach, my dad leased the hunting rights to some rural ranch land west of Clewiston, Florida. During my childhood, we spent weekends at the “hunting camp”. Although I knew little about cattle, I learned at a young age something called gate etiquette.

Gate etiquette is really a very simple concept – If you find a gate open, you can leave it open – If you find a gate closed, then you must re-shut it after you pass through it. Gate etiquette ensures that cattle remain in the pastures that they are meant to be in and do not stray somewhere that they do not belong. In addition to taking care with gates, we also made sure that we did not disturb or harm the fences in between pastures.

My brother and I, many many years ago out at the

My brother and I, many many years ago out at the “hunting camp”…

Our family was both thankful for the ability to hunt on the ranch land, and also for the cattle that grazed there. In addition to growing beef, the presence of the bovines played an important role in ecosystem which improved the health of the land and the quality of the hunting. My dad was a stickler for rules, and I know that the rancher appreciated our diligence.

When I moved to Nebraska in 1997 and went to work on the farm, I learned to truly appreciate gate etiquette. It, along with good fence maintenance, ensures the safety of both our cattle and the community members that drive the roads near our farm. I cannot stress how truly important this is. I also cannot stress how truly frustrating it is when people from outside of the farm do not respect fence and gate etiquette.

The fence prevents accidents and ensures safety -- please don't tamper with it!

The fence prevents accidents and ensures safety — please don’t tamper with it!

Unfortunately, in the last 18 years, I have seen all of the following things occur on our farm. As a result, we have lost cattle (a few that were never recovered) who became a liability for everyone as they wandered and strayed across roads where they might cause accidents.

  • Poachers cutting down fence in order to illegally trespass and hunt on our property.
  • Careless off farm repairman who are hired to come to the farm to fix a problem but open gates and forget to close them.
  • Irresponsible electrical company workers who take down fence along property lines without asking in order to do maintenance on power lines, and then not rebuilding the fence properly when their work is complete.
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A properly closed gate protects both the animals and the people that travel the roads near farms…

One of the worst feelings in the world is a phone call from the sheriff’s office in the middle of the night informing you that cattle are on the highway. Regardless of whether they are your cattle or the neighbor’s, it leads to a sleepless night.

The truly sad part of this story is that all of this can be prevented if everyone took the time to care.

Minding the fence, shutting the gate, and respecting the animals that bring food to your table is everyone’s business. It keeps our animals on the farm where they are safe, and off of the roads where they endanger not only themselves but also innocent road travelers. Please take the time to do your part.

Together we are responsible providers: to our animals, our land, and to each other.

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Seeing In Pictures…

If you have read one of Dr. Temple Grandin’s books or seen her movie, you will remember hearing that cattle see in pictures. What this means is that cattle view the world as a collection of images. They are not linear thinkers – rather, they live in the visual moment. Good cattle caregivers understand what it means to see in pictures because they spend their days doing just that in order to effectively communicate with their animals.

Newly arrived cattle traveling back to the home pen after an exercising session...

Newly arrived cattle traveling back to the home pen after an exercising session…

I believe that when asking cattle to move from one place to another, the handler not only needs to see in pictures, but also to envision angles within the images. Moving cattle calmly and correctly necessitates applying appropriate pressure from the appropriate angle to instigate orderly movement. Depending on the personalities of the animals as well as their past interactions with human handlers, this angled pressure can range from incredibly soft to strong in nature. Regardless of the level of life involved in the pressure, it is the release of that pressure when the animal or group of animals responds correctly that creates a healthy animal/handler learning moment.

There are two kinds of bovine movement: a frantic flight/fight response that is fueled by fear, and a deliberate thinking response that comes from an effective interaction. The goal is to accomplish the latter, and it always makes me smile when I am savvy enough to enable a calf to think. At that moment, harmony exists as the right thing becomes the easy thing.

While this short video is several years old, in it my favorite blonde cowgirl does a nice job of showing appropriate and angled pressure as she asks a group of yearling cattle to exit the home pen. In order to effectively communicate with this group of animals, Megan has to see the pen through the same lens as the cattle and then interact with them in a meaningful way. One of Megan’s greatest strengths as a cattle handler is her ability to see in pictures and accurately read and respond to cattle behavior. This sense allows her to respond with the appropriate level of urgency to each interaction.

In some ways, I think that it is easier for a child to develop this sense. Their unbiased perspective and simplistic view of the world enables them to more easily shift from “human thinking” to “bovine thinking”. Once a young person develops the attentive focus needed to interact, her/his brain is unencumbered and more open to a natural interaction.

It's always a good thing when the cattle handler wears a smile!

It’s always a good thing when the cattle handler wears a smile!

I am not a natural visual thinker and my linear tendencies sometimes challenge my cattle handling skills; but I recognize the importance of thinking like a bovine. Over the years, I have consciously re-programed my brain to view cattle and their surroundings in pictures. Moving cattle out of the home pen and down the alley becomes a series of images and angles that flash through my mind amidst the rapid fire pictures of cattle expression and behavior that combines to determine my actions as the handler. It takes a clear mind and a keen focus, but provides an incredibly interesting journey…

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My favorite farmer read this post on Sunday afternoon and informed me that it was “marked by nerdiness” — I hope that someone other than Megan finds it interesting :)

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Through the Eyes Of a Mom…

I became a farmer two and half years before I officially became a mom. June 15th I will celebrate my 19th wedding anniversary and (two days later) my 18th anniversary at the feed yard. Learning to be a farmer, then a mom, then a combination of the two has been an awesome journey.

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Sunday we all celebrate Mother’s Day — While thoughts of motherhood and animal care often float through my mind, this week they seem to be on the forefront.

There are five core principles that I hold onto with tremendous tenacity as I navigate the road of motherhood and cattle caregiver. Today, I share them with each of you as food for thought as we approach the celebration of life epitomized by Mother’s Day.

  • Dependability: Consistency and quiet fortitude create a culture of healthy learning. Whether I am building the self-confidence of my daughters or my cattle, steadfast and reliable behavior allows for positive growth and effective leadership.
  • Accountability: At the end of the day, I am ultimately responsible. While my girls are now old enough to make decisions independently, it is my subtle guidance and the lessons that I teach them through my own actions that are reflected in their choices. It warms my heart when they make a good decision as that is a direct reflection of my success as a parent. Watching my animals thrive under my care and tutelage provides that same feeling of pride and accomplishment.
  • Compassion: In all of my 40 years, I have never found anything more powerful than the expression of compassion. Both people and animals respond positively to caring – they sense it, they hunger for it, and they blossom when they come into contact with it. A sentiment being does not appreciate how much you know until they realize how much you care. Good leadership is always based on compassion.
  • Perseverance: Both children and animals will test their caregivers. Human nature is never content without pushing the borders of acceptable behavior. One of the greatest gifts that I give to both my children and my animals is a guidance based on steadfast strength and unbending perseverance. My strength becomes contagious, good habits become the norm.
  • Excellence: While a rewarding life is marked by joy, it also is not always comfortable. To achieve success, to feel that warmth of accomplishment – the pride of good work, you must engage in the quest for excellence. While settling may be easy, not taking the chance to make a true difference prevents positive progress. The sustainability of our country relies on a constant commitment to excellence. I cannot look my girls in the eye and promise them that I will never fail, but I can show them with my actions that I will give everything that I have, every day that I live, constantly striving for excellence.

Together we make a difference – for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for the animals that will ultimately provide nourishment for each of us.

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Mother’s Day is not only a celebration of life – it is an inspiration for a life of meaningful action.

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They Can’t Take It Off…

As part of my NPDES permit issued through the Environmental Protection Agency, I keep daily weather records at the feed yard. I record precipitation, daily high and low temperatures, wind speed and wind direction. In addition to fulfilling my government regulation responsibilities, my favorite farmer uses the weather data during the crop growing season to help him manage irrigation on the farm.

As I reviewed the weather data entered for the last three weeks, I gave thanks that cattle are very resilient creatures. The highest temperature during the 21 day period was 70 degrees and the lowest 4 below zero (-4). In fact, our farm saw seven days from January 23-February 13 marked by more than a 40 degree temperature swing. The record for the period was a low of -4 followed by a high of 61 degrees the next day. We also had two significant winter storms during those three weeks.

While humans view the respite from winter on a beautiful sunny February afternoon a blessing, my cattle suffer from it. Quite simply, we all take our coats off when the weather warms – Cattle don’t have that luxury.

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They can’t take it off…

“Shirt sleeve” weather for a bovine is 55 degrees. In Nebraska during the winter, cattle put on heavy coats to protect them from the cold. Instead of shirt sleeves, they spend the winter in a down jacket. As seasons change, cattle acclimate to the resulting changing weather at the rate of approximately 1 degree per day. Using that model, it would take approximately 65 days to acclimate from -4 to 61 degrees. February 5th, Mother Nature asked my animals to do that in 12 hours.

They can handle the cold — They can handle the heat — But the extremes in temperature swings bring significant challenges for them.

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When cattle struggle with weather stress, they are more fragile. We place them on a special ration (bovine food casserole) that is easier to digest, make sure that an ample supply of fresh (not frozen!) drinking water is available, and work extra hard to make home pen conditions comfortable for them.

Good care requires an attention to detail, and times of weather challenge make me especially proud of my crew as we work diligently always placing the cattle’s welfare as our top priority.

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How Can You Tell If a Group of Calves Are Acclimated?

 

A couple of years ago I took this video of my favorite blonde cowgirl at the beginning of an acclimation session.  Megan then edited the video by adding music (Fly Over States) by Jason Aldean.  The video remained up on YouTube for a couple of years but was taken down recently due to copyright infringement violation.  Apparently, Megan needed Jason’s permission to use the song :)

I noticed that the video had been taken down last week when I tried to use it during a presentation to the Kansas State Masters of Agri-Business students.  I fielded several questions from the group relative to low stress handling and cattle acclimating at the end of my talk.  Above is the video in non-edited form which I re-uploaded to YouTube over the weekend.

As a companion piece, below find the ways that I can tell if a group of calves are acclimated during their transition into the feed yard.

  • When asked, the calves will group in the home pen and move in straight lines around the pen.
  • When asked, the calves will exit the home pen in an orderly fashion, understanding where the gate is located.
  • Once down at the corral, when asked, the calves will calmly walk past the handler.
  • When asked, the calves will move back down the alley from the corral to the home pen with exuberance.  At the end of the acclimation period, cattle exhibit more excitement traveling back to the home pen than leaving the home pen.

The goal of acclimation is for the calf (group of calves) to become comfortable with both the home pen and a human caregiver, while learning where to eat and drink, and how to move off of alternate pressure and herd with confidence. 

An acclimated calf is comfortable in its environment, naturally curious, and accepting of a human caregiver.

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*On an unrelated note, for those of you Serious XM subscribers in the group, I will be featured on the Angus Journal Show — Rural Radio Channel 80 Saturday morning (January 17th) at 10:00am CST.  Check it out!

 

 

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They’re Big…

My favorite blonde cowgirl spent a significant amount of time with me at the feed yard over Thanksgiving vacation. One morning, as we were asking a group of calves to build confidence walking past a handler in the corral area, a few of the animals spooked suddenly. Megan was not expecting it and “spooked” almost as much as the calves. After the cattle settled down, she looked at me and said:

“Mama, does your heart skip a beat when the cattle do that? Or, do you eventually get used to it enough that it doesn’t scare you?”

My answer to her:

“Yes.” (To both questions)

Cattle are big animals. There is not a bovine on my farm that is less than 5X my size and, just prior to slaughter, my animals can weigh close to 14X as much as I do. In the event of a physical battle, I would lose every time… We do almost all of our cattle handling on foot, so as handlers we must be smart in order to remain safe.

They're Big...

They’re Big…

The aspect of human safety is often forgotten when cattle care is discussed in audiences outside of the farm. As a feed yard manager, it is always foremost in my mind as I care about my crew and want them to always be safe. I also serve as one of our primary cattle handlers so I have an additional personal investment in handler safety.

I believe that one of the most dangerous chores at the feed yard is shipping cattle to the packing plant. This is the time when my  heart is most likely to skip a beat, and this task is reserved for only the most experienced handlers.  It is an aspect of my farm where I feel that I need to always search for ways to consistently improve. There is the obvious aspect of cattle welfare to consider, but just as important is the human safety issue.

There are several rules of thumb that I believe apply to shipping cattle:

  • The larger the bovine — the more likely that the animal’s previous bad habits/behavior will resurface and challenge the handler…This is why good cattle handling throughout the entire lifespan is so important. The rancher begins this process the day that the calf is born and it is so important that he/she gives the calf a good start.
  • The more agitated the handler — the more agitated the animal…When things turn bad, they go downhill quickly as animals feed off of the handlers’ emotions.
  • Maintaining constant herd movement up the alleyway and into the truck is critical. Newton’s Law of motion applies! The key to good movement is to get the animal thinking of moving forward and limiting distractions which would disrupt that thought…

There will be challenges when shipping cattle – the weather, shipping in the darkness (at night or before the sun comes up), forming a synchronized team with the off-farm truck driver hired to transport the cattle, the disposition of the animals, as well as a variety of other unforeseen factors. These combine to make ensuring a safe shipment one of the hardest responsibilities that I have at the feed yard.

I know that I have a lot of room for improvement in my process of shipping cattle to the packing plant. I also know that we have made great strides in this chore during my tenure at the feed yard. I am committed to continuing to search for better ways to make each and every ship-out safe for both my crew and my cattle.  It is one of my greatest challenges.

Two big steers just before I "put them on the bus"...

Two big steers just before being loaded onto the truck to go to the packing plant…

All of you loyal Feed Yard Foodie readers will recognize that I very rarely have pictures of the ship-out process on the blog. This is not because I do not want to share this experience with each of you, it is simply because I cannot put the big boys on the bus safely if I am distracted by taking pictures…

 

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Continuous Improvement…

I met Dr. Tom Noffsinger more than a decade ago.  A veterinarian in Southwestern, Nebraska, Dr. Tom teaches the concept of low stress cattle handling and holistic bovine care.  He is a master at understanding the bovine mind, and is truly a devoted advocate for our animals.

Tom Noffsinger

Dr. Tom Noffsinger…

I love to watch Dr. Tom engage and handle cattle.  His gift of patience and dedication to caring mentors me as I travel my own personal journey of continuously improving cattle care.  I laugh to my girls that “when I grow up, I want to be like Dr. Tom”, and it is a lifelong goal of mine to be as savvy a cattle caregiver as he is.

I am very excited to report that Dr Tom has teamed up with a Brazilian veterinarian (Dr. Paulo Loureiro) to star in a variety of cattle handling videos that are available online for the public to view.

On this Thoughtful Thursday, I encourage each of you to visit the website and spend some time watching and learning from Dr. Tom.  Whether you are a cattle farmer or simply an interested animal lover, these videos show a fascinating side to creating high quality animal care in a feed yard setting.

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Why continuous improvement? Because it matters to him…

 Many thanks to Dr. Tom and Dr. Paulo for bringing good cattle care and handling to the spotlight; as well as to Merck Animal Health for funding the effort. 

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