by Emily Leeson
It was a cold and rainy day on June 17, and although many had likely dug out their winter hats to withstand a few hours sat down in an open barn, more than 40 local beef producers and 4-Hers still turned out for Jane Morrigan’s humane cattle handling workshop in Falmouth, N.S.
The workshop was held at Dean and Catherine Manning’s mixed farm, where they maintain a beef cow-calf operation and grow grain and vegetable crops. They also operate a seasonal farm market.
This Saturday afternoon, though, their barn was decked out with lumber bench seating and a PowerPoint screen set up just in front of a portion of the barn where two cows spent much of the presentation licking a salt block and staring down the crowd.
Larry Weatherby, chair of the Nova Scotia Cattle Producers, which co-sponsored the event along with Farm Safety Nova Scotia, introduced Morrigan to the crowd of largely teenagers and young families engaged in the beef industry.
Morrigan, who hails from the Scotsburn, N.S., area, was a full-time dairy farmer before she returned to school for a master’s degree in agriculture and animal behaviour. She mixes animal welfare training, auditing, and consulting in with her now part-time farming endeavours. Into her so-called retirement years, she’s keen to do workshops with younger members of the beef industry.
While Morrigan discussed animal welfare issues in the beef industry – including pain control, weaning issues, and transportation – she was clearly keenly aware of the average age of the audience members and the opportunity she had to relate her lessons to the young crowd gearing up for exhibition season.
At each opportunity, she offered a bit of advice to the 4-Hers to help them keep their animals calm and content during the potentially stressful show time.
“4-Hers are ambassadors for the industry,” Morrigan told the attendees, many of whom were snugged down as deeply as they could in their hoodies as the wind whipped in through the open barn doors.
Parents hung around the edges of the audience, many kitted out with camp chairs and blankets. A few smaller kids rotated between benches, but none-the-less managed to stay relatively attentive and engaged during the three-hour presentation, which was followed by a short walk-through of the Mannings’ handling system.
When talking about pain management, Morrigan reminded the group that what they might perceive of a cow’s reaction may not be an accurate reflection of how something is affecting them.
“The natural behaviour of a herd animal is to not show pain,” she explained. “Producers have a responsibility to show care.”
She outlined the medications and methods currently deemed the most effective. She also delved into a few tips for managing painful procedures while still maintaining the animal’s trust.
“Cattle have visual memories,” Morrigan said. “Whenever possible, don’t be the person doing those things.” She suggested bringing in the vet or a neighbour. As a last-ditch effort, she said, a farmer can try dressing unrecognizably while conducting necessary but painful procedures such as castrating and dehorning.
With respect to transportation, Morrigan noted that loading and unloading are more stressful to the animal than the ride. When asked by an attendee how to best estimate the number of animals to fit into transportation space, Morrigan laid out what she considers to be the general rule: “The animals have to have enough room that everyone can lie down at the same time.”
Everything else depends on the situation, the length of the journey, the temperature, and the humidity. Morrigan said that her most frequent answer to these sorts of questions is: “It all depends.”
Relating back to the exhibition experience, Morrigan suggested that whenever possible, 4-Hers should practice loading and unloading their animals before doing so for the show date. Practice and preparation were at the core of most of her advice to the teens. “Practice every conceivable scenario they might run into,” Morrigan stressed.
She suggested introducing animals to the sounds they might hear at an exhibition ahead of time.
“It’s a lot to adjust to,” she said. “It’s an unfamiliar environment, the water is different, there are species they’ve never met.”
Reducing stress for the animal makes good sense for its welfare and its competition standing. Morrigan suggested bringing water from home. And later in her presentation, when discussing the natural behaviour of cattle as herd animals, she even suggested bringing a buddy from the same herd. “Take a few calves from the same herd to the show,” she said. “Separation anxiety applies to herd mates as well.”
Morrigan, who has been trained by Temple Grandin, the famous American livestock behaviour consultant, outlined many of Grandin’s theories and how they’ve influenced modern handling system designs. She spoke to the group about using cattle’s natural behavioural tendencies to keep them calm as they’re moved along through pastures and handling systems, through gates, and into and out of transport trailers.
Moving into the discussion on equipment, Morrigan demonstrated various driving aids, including a simple homemade effort consisting of a piece of dowel with a yellow shopping bag tied at one end. Yellow, green, blue, and purple are the colours most visible to cattle.
Near the end of her presentation, and as one clearly committed to the species, Morrigan spoke to the next generation of producers and agricultural scientists a little bit about the rewarding relationship between humans and animals.
“It’s OK to like your animals,” she said, smiling, “It’s good for you. It’s good for them.”
And clearly that affection can lead to a respectful relationship whereby the welfare of the animal becomes the pride of the producer.
by Emily Leeson