March 2, 2010

Slaughterhouse Spotlight: Livestock Behavior

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“The only way we can prevent bad from becoming normal is to measure handling,” said Prof. Temple Grandin, animal science, Colorado State University. Grandin is one of the nation’s top researchers in livestock behavior. During her presentation last Tuesday, before faculty and students, Grandin discussed the impact of human behavior as well as slaughterhouse environments on the docility and wellbeing of animals.

Grandin investigated slaughter facilities with her work for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Many of these facilities had factors that contributed to animal anxiety.  According to Grandin, “little chains hanging down, reflections, [and] coats on fences,” are factors that may impact an animal’s docility.

Similarly, stark contrasts in lighting negatively effect animal wellbeing because they inhibit voluntary movement.  Animals neither like moving from light to dark nor from dark to light.

For example, Grandin described the “black-hole effect.” In this black-hole effect, a Kansas lot preferred the interior of a dark three-sided shed rather than a bright feeding bunk. The blinding sun inhibited animal traffic and regular feeding behavior.

To address the problem, Grandin described the need to allow animals to move voluntarily while being herded. The animals perceive this voluntary movement, more than other factor, as a lack of stress, which improves docility.  Allowing  animals the chance to investigate new surroundings as their groups move between sections of a facility is critical, she explained.

Non-slip flooring can also improve docility.  Slippery surfaces, such as smooth stainless steel, can harm livestock that fall and subsequently develop anxiety.

Grandin found that handlers’ habits can also make animals anxious. As a major consequence of rough handling, animals remain excited for 20 to 30 minutes after a “novel situation.” A novel situation is a stressful event, or an experience with something new in the environment.

“People who are working with animals, especially animals that aren’t totally tame, need to understand the animal’s flight zone (the range at which the animal takes flight),” said Grandin. Misunderstanding or poor judgment of flight zones results in exciting animals unnecessarily.

Handlers desiring forward movement of animals must remain behind the animal’s point of balance.  If they want the animal to move back, the handler must stand before its point of balance.

Grandin recounted to the audience that of the facilities, inspected in 1996, only 30% of the slaughter plants successfully stunned 95% or more of their livestock on the first attempt. This is a result of poor equipment maintenance, but can be easily remedied by better management techniques. Successful stunning is important because it decreases time per head of processing and diminishes animal anxiety.

To remedy these many stressful factors, many slaughter plants adopt USDA approved facility plans, and they employ a number of Grandin’s designs for squeeze shoots and handling equipment.

Grandin’s model is comparable to Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures, which are utilized in food processing and industrial manufacturing applications. This method avoids the problems associated with record keeping and procedures on the kill floors.

Grandin reflected on many changes in slaughter facilities.  These changes include installing lights in dark shoots, placing card board around gated areas to diminish visibility and constructing non-slick flooring.

The most important thing for slaughterhouses, Grandin added, are standards that encourage improvement.  She sets her standards based on what the top 25% of slaughter facilities can potentially achieve to stimulate improvement in all slaughterhouses. As the industry as a whole improves, however, she hopes the bar can be raised.

Original Author: Zachary Mason