Reduce bruising with careful handling

by Sally Colby

There are almost no legitimate excuses for bruised cattle, but despite educational efforts and Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs, it’s still happening.

Dr. Stephen Boyles, Department of Animal Science at Ohio State, said nationwide, the beef industry loses $35 million every year to bruising. Boyles’s interest and teaching focus is on animal welfare, animal handling, facility design and BQA.

How does a bruise happen? “First you have to have force,” said Boyles. “Something has to hit something. Then there’s blood gushing – something has to be alive to get a bruise. We aren’t talking about peaches that rot.”

Avoiding bruises starts with gathering and chute work. While moving cattle, Boyles prefers to stand in a position that prevents animals from bumping into one another. “I don’t want them to come all at once,” he said. “I want to see how they’re walking and score them. A score of 1 is a normal walk and 4 is a severe limp. A basic rule for loading them on the truck is the 3s and 4s that have trouble walking should be the last on so they’re the first off when they arrive at the packing plant.”

A handler who is directing cattle in an alleyway for loading should be positioned far enough away to not interfere with cattle movement that can lead to crowding and crushing. “The goal is to guide cattle in a way that forces wide turns, which minimizes bruising on cattle sides,” said Boyles. “Instead of pushing them in too tight, make them do a wide turn.”

Another handling problem related to bruising and one that results in carcass loss is dark cutters. Boyles said anything that happens to cattle that increases blood lactate and reduces blood pH leads to dark cutting beef (DCB). “This occurs when cattle are exposed to physical or psychological stress for a period of time prior to slaughter,” said Boyles. “Moving cattle on hot days, poor handling, any prolonged or chronic stress results in a severe depletion of muscle glycogen, leading to a reduction in lactic acid production postmortem.”

The muscle has higher than optimum pH level as it cools, and the meat appears dark and dry, resulting in reduced consumer acceptability. The lack of sufficient acidification of the meat increases the capacity for bacterial growth, which accelerates the spoilage rate.

“It isn’t attractive to consumers, and it’s a food safety issue,” said Boyles, describing DCB. “When pH is increased, shelf life is reduced. Even if the classic dark cutter isn’t obvious from stress, the meat will not last as long in the case.”

Some animals will be dark cutters due to poor temperament, so selective breeding is a factor. “The heritability for disposition is 0.4 to 0.6, compared to heritability of 0.2 to 0.3 for reproductive traits,” said Boyles. “We can breed poor temperament out of them. Crazy cows don’t do us any good.” Boyles added that improperly used or poorly timed implants can also result in dark cutters.

Boyles said while feeder calves coming off the trailer market cattle might jog or run, market animals headed for the packing plant should never move faster than a walk. Club steers sold at auctions following a show are another group that’s often highly stressed. In some cases, they’re held over a few days, and often fight because they aren’t accustomed to one another.

What about the use of prods? “Crews bringing cattle up to the kill box are similar to crews that work at a car wash,” said Boyles. “There’s constant turnover of employees, and a continual need at packing plants to train and retrain new employees. Cattle prods are not bad, and I’m not saying you can’t use them, but they are not an extension of your arm. Use it once, put it down.”

Simple measures such as not shipping polled cattle with horned cattle and paying attention to working facilities can prevent bruises. “Walk through your facilities,” said Boyles. “Here in the East, we’re blessed with a lot of wooden corrals. Walk through them in spring and check the boards that might have moved from freezing and thawing.”

He added that the perfect squeeze chute, especially if it’s on concrete, has a bucket of dirt or sand next to it. “About the fourth or fifth animal that comes through that chute will slip,” he said. “You can regroove the concrete, but for the short term, throw some sand or dirt on it to prevent slips and falls.”

For stocker operators bringing calves from moist conditions in southern states, Boyles suggested unloading calves slowly. “They’ve been on moist soil,” he said. “The hoof hasn’t had time to harden up, so walk the cattle off easy, even if they’re going back to grass or a feedlot; otherwise, they may develop a toe abscess that’ll compromise the animal if its foot is sore.” Calves being moved from grass to the feed yard should also be moved carefully to prevent foot bruising.

Loin bruises usually result from rough handling during loading or unloading. Cattle are frightened, begin to crowd and often become wedged in doorways. Shoulder bruises occur when cattle are rushed and encounter broken boards, sharp pipes or protruding latches.

Dorsal bruising is one of the main issues in trailered cattle headed to the packer. In an effort to ease that problem, some trailer manufacturers are dropping floors about four inches. However, tall Holsteins will likely still be prone to dorsal bruising unless enough trailers are sufficiently modified.

Packing plants are set up to handle trailers of all sizes, but Boyles suggested rubber bumpers should be in place wherever cattle are loaded and unloaded to ease the shock of the entire load shifting if the trailer hits the dock.

Once cattle are on the truck, it’s up to the driver to handle the load properly. Boyles said cattle haulers with experience understand that hauling cattle is much like hauling an equal volume of water. “If you have a great big trailer full of water, how does that hold when you pull away?” he asked. “Water goes to the back. What if you go around a turn? Water goes to the side. Cattle move the same way.” He added that experienced cattle haulers routinely deliver cattle that are less stressed.

“For a lot of us, handling and loading cattle is not an everyday event,” Boyles said. “We need to slow down and take our time.”

While many beef producers have already completed BQA training, haulers of fed cattle will need certification in the BQAA Transportation program by Jan. 1. This training is available online at bqatransportation.beeflearningcenter.org.

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