Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Note on Branding Cattle

A quick note in response to some comments made about a picture I posted on Facebook last Thursday of me branding a cow.  For starters, I understand that this is an issue with two sides, and that it is an endless discussion.  However, I took offense to some comments insinuating that I was taking part in animal cruelty, when that isn’t the case at all.  Also – do you know where the meat you’ve been eating comes from?  What kind of life those animals live and what processes and procedures are followed to get that animals onto your plate?  I do now.  Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of beef, and I’m proudly living on a productive Australian cattle station.  (and my boss is Canadian!)

We’ll start with a background of the size of these cattle stations here in Australia.  I am currently employed as a station hand on a 93 000 acre station in Queensland.  Perspective time!  Barrie, Ontario, is about 77 square kilometers, which convert to 19 027 acres.  This station is 93 000 acres.  Vancouver, British Columbia, is 115 square kilometers.  Again – this station is 93 000 acres.  It must also be stated that this station isn’t even a big one!  There are many station in Australia that are over a million acres in size.  Let’s put that into perspective then.  Ottawa, including Kanata, Nepean, Cumberland and Arnprior is 2779 square kilometers.  That is still only 686 705 acres.  If that isn’t clear enough, many station in Australia are BIGGER THAN CANADA’S CAPITAL CITY AND SURROUNDING AREAS.  Now, on to animal numbers, so you can put the idea of ownership and business into this equation.  There are nearly 10 000 cattle here.  That’s more than the population of Minden’s worth, in COWS. Moo.

A quick definition for your read: the word ‘husbandry.’
[mass noun]
1.     the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals:  all aspects of animal husbandry
2.     management and conservation of resources: low borrowing demonstrates astute husbandry of resources

Cattle, (and sheep and goats), undergo various husbandry procedures to:
-       Improve productivity; by maintaining your animals, vaccinating them and even dehorning them, your herd will be healthier and therefore will lead a happier life in the paddock.
-       Identify individual animals or mobs of animals; branding helps identify your animals from a distance
-       Prevent unwanted breeding; by castrating and monitoring your animals, you will prevent unwanted breeding, inbreeding, and uncontrolled/unmonitored cattle numbers
-       Enhance carcass quality and composition; this means that when the cow is ready to be butchered, its meat is well composed and it’s a healthy weight for eating.
-       Reduce the risk of disease; vaccinating and checking your animals for infection, lesions, and wounds (from fights, dingoes or other wild animal attacks)
-       Monitor for the presence of disease and to meet the requirements of disease control programs
-       Decrease the risk of injury to themselves, other animals and people; by dehorning, you’re keeping the other animals out of the risk of being bruised or injured in the paddocks and during transportation.  You’re also preventing injury to humans during transportation and further husbandry processes.
-       Determine their age and maintain correct animal records

When carrying out husbandry procedures on livestock it is important to:
-       Handle the animals in a way that minimises stress; Australian farmers pride themselves on low stress stock handling. This means fast and efficient husbandry procedures
-       Maximise animal welfare
-       Pay attention to occupational health and safety
-       Take workplace productivity into account.

Most Australian stations practice low stress stock handing, and even host schooling events for locals and for farming staff to attend, to continue the education of low stress stock handling.  Wentworth, for example, is hosting a two-day low stress stock handling school with hands on practicing and a lecture theory portion, in April.

(This is a good read to skim over, if you’re actually interested in guidelines and procedures of animal husbandry! –

Australian cattle producers care about their animals, and practice the best and most efficient procedures with the animals’ welfare in mind at all times.  During “branding time,” branding, castrating, and dehorning takes place – as does vaccinating, and a quick look over of each animals, looking for lesions, eye infections, or other marks.)  The high majority of Australian beef cattle spend their life grazing in large paddocks on large cattle stations across the country.  They are not housed in tight barns or sheds, and husbandry processes take place out in stockyards on the properties in areas that the animals are familiar with.

The routine husbandry processes and practices of dehorning and castration are essential management procedures that help maintain happy and healthy animals that can be reared and delivered to market in the safest way possible for both the animals and their handlers. 

Branding isn’t mandatory everywhere, but it is mandatory in the state of Queensland for any animals over 100kg that are being sold or transported.  It isn’t a thoughtless procedure that is done carelessly.  There are brand reuirements, location requirements, and the brands must be registered.  Farmers take great pride in their brands. 

Depending on the size of a cattle operation, a bystander may or may not understand the importance of branding cattle to distinguish them from others.  Many beef farms in Ontario (for example – sticking to Ontario, just because it’s where I come from_, have very small numbers of cattle in comparison to larger farms in Australia.  Branding is the most practical and visible way of permanently identifying animals from a distance.  It is essential on large scale operations where it is not practical or even possible to read an ear tattoo or electronic ear tag. 

Graziers/Rancers take great pride in a nice, neat brand, showing their ownership, taking care not to smudge or over brand their animals.  Brands are registered, and each brand is a symbol of a farmer’s or a company’s hard work and years (sometimes generations) of dedication.

Too often, people put their emotions and pain tolerances on animals, such as cattle being branded.  A cow’s hide is much thicker than our skin, and is built to withstand life outdoors.  A brand done properly only lasts two to three seconds, maximum.  (as opposed to freeze branding, which lasts between 30-60 seconds, and hurts for much longer like severe frostbite.)  The animals’ behaviour when they are reunited with their mother suggests that they are more concerned with being temporarilty separated from their mother than the branding procedure.  Once the endorphins of sucking their mother’s milk kick in, they wave their tails in happiness.  The mothers keep the marks clean and infection free.  An efficient group of farmers and station hands will have the calves separated from their mothers, have the calves branded, dehorned, vaccinated and castrated, and reunited with their mothers in only a few hours. 

Many people that form an opinion on such matters have never actually taken part in the actual task at hand.  Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to work with an efficient and careful team here at Wentworth that worked quickly and quietly while ensuring low stress stock handling.  I, myself, even got to brand, dehorn, vaccinate and castrate calves, and witnessed all procedures start to finish – as well as the reuniting of calves and mothers.  

Cattle can handle physical pain very well, but not mental stress, which is why it is so important to handle them properly.  Handling cows with low stress stock handling will help to keep their stress levels to a minimum.  If handled correctly, they don't have any fear of humans or yards when they come in again for weaning, suggesting that it isn't an ordeal for them.  It is documented that if they are familiar with yards/crushes etc , then their cortisol levels don't rise as much as those that are encountering the experience for the first time.  This shows the importance of running them through the crush for a "practise run".  (A crush is either a manual, or hydraulic piece of equipment that holds a calf in place by applying pressure to their chest cavity, holding them still so vaccinating, castrating and branding can take place with as little movement as possible from the animal.  A crush does not hurt the animal.  Instead, it helps keep them calm.  

Initially, I was really upset by the comments made on the picture I had posted, but instead of lashing out and saying something ridiculous out of anger, I figured I would do some research, talk to real farmers in the area, and write up something educational so that it’s known that I am not in fact living on a farm that takes part in animal cruelty.  I hope you learned something from this!  It’s not much, but it’s a start.  The debate is endless. 

Lastly – call them farmers, bogans, rednecks, hillbillies, whatever you like.  Just make sure you thank them for the food you eat.  Without them, you’d be scroungin’.


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