The Emasculator: Sorry, guys, it has to be done

So, I didn’t know that there were people that were against the idea of castrating food animals. So let’s get a few things straight. But first! Some background:

Terms

  • A bull is an intact male cattle.
  • A steer is a castrated male cattle.
  • A heifer is a young cow. (Cows are female.)
  • A buck is an intact male goat.
  • A ram is an intact male sheep.
  • A wether is a castrated male sheep or goat.

What kinds of animals are castrated?

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Pigs
  • Cattle
  • Goats
  • Sheep

How does castration work?

To be fair, I will show you the concerns first, but stick with me—castration is an essential part of livestock production. And it’s certainly not done to be mean. For different kinds of animals, there are different methods of castration. For calves, the blood supply to the testicles is interrupted with a castration clamp or a rubber ring or latex rubber band. The testicles then shrink and completely regress (Burdizzo method) or slough off (band method). My personal favorite method is with an emasculator (c’mon, that’s just fun to say), where the spermatic cord is crushed and cut to prevent hemorrhaging while still detaching the testes. This is typically done without anesthetic, but also very quickly; in the band method, the testicles will go numb over a period of time, about ten minutes. Based on a survey by Kansas State University, one in five veterinarians in the US use anesthetics or analgesics. Fun fact: human men use the Burdizzo method and the band method on themselves sometimes. The more you know! With pigs, the most common method of castration is with a surgical knife. The method is as follows (adapted from the pig industry handbook)

  1. Hold the piglet by both hind legs with its head down.
  2.  Using the thumb, push up on both testicles.
  3.  Make an incision through the skin of the scrotum over each testicle in the direction of the tail.
  4.  Be sure the incisions are made low on the scrotal sac to allow for fluid drainage.
  5. It does not matter if you cut through the white membrane of each testicle or not.
  6. Pop the testicles through each incision and pull on them slightly.
  7. Pull each testicle out while pressing your thumb against the piglet’s pelvis.
  8. Thumb pressure on the pelvis is important to ensure that the testicular cords break off at the point of your thumb rather than deep inside the body, which may promote development of a hernia.
  9. If necessary, the testicle may be cut free of the cord using a scraping motion.
  10. Cut away any cord or connective tissue protruding from the incision and spray the wound with antiseptic.

I’ve heard some complaints that the wound is left open. Yeah, it looks a little freaky, but it’s good to let it drain. Trust me. Even veterinarians in a clinic on an operating table leave it open sometimes.

Why castrate?

Aggression: Frankly, intact male livestock are a danger to other animals in the herd and to the humans that work with them. Of course,  certain animals are kept intact for breeding, and they are dangerous to work with. Dairy bulls are notorious for their aggression—they will kill someone who enters their pen. Now imagine a herd of a thousand head of cattle, and half of them are pumped up with their natural testosterone, and rarin’ for a fight. Not a good time!

Problems of breeding: Ranchers get to pick which cows are bred and keep tabs on them. They can be given treatments and separated from the herd as they near their time to give birth. If the choice is taken out of the farmer’s hands, calves and cows could be lost to medical complications because the owner didn’t know this or that cow was pregnant. Genetic disorders are a risk if brothers and sisters may mate, and certainly some heifers that are too young to carry offspring will undergo extreme physical stress. Dairy calves are especially susceptible to disease, and must be separated from the herd immediately or they will likely die.

Product: Yes, it’s true—the meat of some animals tastes better to customers when they are castrated. Also, animals tend to gain weight better.

Why not castrate?

It hurts. Some of us will consider this a temporary pain with long-term benefits to the animals and the people. Others will consider this an abuse that needs to be corrected.

What to do, what to do?

Look… we need to castrate farm animals. Disagree with the way it’s done, sure, but don’t say we don’t need to do it unless you’re willing to sacrifice human and animal lives for what can be considered a temporary pain.

So what can you do? We live in a country where customers say, “we want no drugs of any kind, we want no antibiotics, we want no hormones.” You, the customers, are going to have to make a decision. Do you want anesthetics to be used? Speak up. It will cost money. You have to be willing to pay, because that farmer is not going to go bankrupt just so you can feel better. Some counties have outlawed non-anesthetized castration, and that’s fine, if you can get the whole country to do it. The problem is, when your public is uninformed and sees the local meat prices go up, they buy from out of state or imported meat. So, you run into the problem where you hurt your local farmers. I believe in voting with dollars. We’ve talked about this before, in our hog article, about market-driven changes. If enough people write to McDonald’s, for instance, to say “I want my animals raised like this”, and it’s a reasonable demand, changes happen.

Alternative Methods

There is research on hormonal castrations that are no more painful than an injection. The injection ultimately decreases the production of testosterone for a certain amount of time. It’s expensive and requires more labor, as several injections are required, but there are definitely benefits in animal welfare.

The problem? Holy shit, it’s a hormone. Consumers don’t want it. News flash. You eat hormones every day. They’re natural. It’s protein—you digest them like protein. And, if you’re a woman, you might be taking birth control—a hormone pill! Please. Sounding scientificial doesn’t make something bad.

And now you know the thing that pisses me off: when animal welfare progress is halted because people don’t know any better. Here’s what a lot of people don’t know: topics like this are discussed so much in scientific research, as veterinarians try and find new, better ways to do common practices. It is essential that that happens first, before you fly into a courtroom without offering any alternatives to the practice. It is important to remember that new technology is always emerging, and you will see farmers trying different things to see which is better for them and their animals. The pain associated with castration is a challenge they have to face, but let’s not demonize this practice or assume that ranchers do it because they’re sadistic—they don’t. These are people who take pride in raising up a big, fit healthy animal.

See also:

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1746-6148/6/12

http://www.newsham.com/downloads/management-guidelines/castration-of-pigs.pdf

https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Backgrounders/Documents/castration_cattle_bgnd.pdf

http://www.cattlenetwork.com/cattle-resources/preconditioning/castration-dehorning/finding-answers-about-pain-and-castration-113985289.html

(Post Script: And I promise castration doesn’t ruin the rest of their lives! Those steers and cows running around on the grassy ranches of Northern California look pretty damn happy to me!)

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You would want small cages if you were a hog

As always, and I will emphasize now, this article deals with California and to some extent, the USA. On this particular topic, I found lots and lots of articles on Europe, but their farms are different, their hogs are different, and I’m relying on data obtained in the States.

O.K.! Before I get started, let’s get some farming terms down. A Gestation Crate: a metal enclosure that restricts turning around in which a pregnant sow is kept for the duration of her pregnancy, about four months. A Farrowing Crate: a wider metal enclosure in which a pregnant sow is kept during labor and nursing, approximately one week.

There has been much confusion in animal welfare talk between farrowing crates and gestation crates. Allow me to be blunt.

Gestation crates are a huge welfare concern. Farrowing crates are a huge welfare benefit.

Gestation crates are being phased out of much of conventional farming (a market driven decision—who knew?). The sows would be housed in a small crate in which they cannot turn around. They only stand up and lay down, for months. The crates are banned in California, a lot of farmers don’t like them, and every animal science professor that I’ve had doesn’t like them. And yes, there have been arguments for their merits—the hogs are protected from one another. The farmer can keep an eye on each individual hog. And, you know, if the farmer loves his or her animals and does a good job, I can see it working in a case-by-case basis—but on the whole, I’d like to see them gone. In California, you typically see group housing (which is its own welfare concern—seems manageable, though).

Farrowing crates are a different story—in fact, they’re very important to ensuring animal welfare. Here’s why:

Sows are big. And fat. And they smell bad—but mostly, we’re concerned about them being big and fat. They really don’t know how to manage their mass. Mother sows, left to their own devices, will stand, meander a bit, turn around and lie down—on their babies.

That’s right. They will accidentally kill off their own litter by crushing them.

The farrowing crate is designed so that there is a barrier that the piglets can get through, but not the sow. The sow may stand, turn around, lay down, and the piglets are free so scurry past the barrier to safety. So, the sow gets a week in less-than-accomodating conditions (although, frankly, they don’t look upset—I can’t tell you why) and the piglets get to nurse from their mother and live to tell the tale.

So, imagine you are a newborn piggie. It’s your first day out of the womb, and it’s bright and not so warm and cozy as it used to be, but at least you get to meet mom face-to-face for the first time. “But wait… what? Mom’s about to lie down—wait—can’t you see me? Wait, mom, stop—noooo!”

One professor gave a similar skit, complete with a look of horror. It was between horrifying and hilarious. What can I say? I’m dark.

Point is, if you were a piglet, wouldn’t you be glad that there’s such a thing as a farrowing crate?

See also:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/25/AR2007012501785.html

http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/printpork.html

http://mustangdaily.net/PropthreatensCalifornianagriculture/

http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vetext/INF-SW_CarePrax.html

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030162260200180X

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0168159196010428

How do you like your eggs: cage-free or scrambled?

Before I say anything, let’s get some terminology and farming practices down. Broiler and fryer chickens are for eating. Layer chickens are for laying eggs. Broilers and fryers are not raised in battery cages. They are also slaughtered before they reach the age when they become aggressive. Layers are raised in battery cages, usually. They reach the age of aggression and they fight. To mitigate the damage that may occur in a fight, the tips of the beaks are clipped. Whether or not pain is involved depends on age, method, a lot of things, but that’s not the topic of today’s piece. Finally, no matter what you do, layers are prone to osteoporosis. It comes of all the calcium they use to form the eggshells on their eggs.

Okay! Let’s go.

I can understand why a person would have a problem with the poultry industry. I really do. Yes, laying hens are kept in cramped battery cages. No, they can’t stretch out and walk around, and yes, they are prone to leg problems and behavioral problems.

But do NOT assume cage-free is better.

This is the dilemma we face in the States. Certain animal rights groups (notably, the HSUS) and others who don’t understand poultry farming oversimplify a complex issue in order to pass feel-good legislature that really doesn’t help. Here’s the deal: cage and cage-free systems both have different welfare problems.

What do we see in a cage-free system?

First up, we have group housing, indoors. I’m not talking backyard farming, I’m talking production-size farming. Chickens fight. They will kill and eat their housing mates. Air quality is poor. Diseases and parasites run rampant, as there is no buffer against the spread of infectious diseases. Broken bones happen. Chickens will injure themselves more often, as now they are free do to so. Fear and hysteria rises. Mortality is way up.

Then, we have the outdoor housing problems. Predation. Humans aren’t the only ones who like to eat chicken–coyotes do too. Again, parasites, diseases and bone fractures. Mortality, way up.

Battery cages were, and are, an effort to correct those problems. But what are our new problems when we use battery cages? Chickens lack bone strength, and they may still get bone-related injuries. They can’t exhibit their natural behaviors anymore: they can’t perch, they can’t nest, they can’t dustbathe, and they can’t forage.

But wait! There’s a second kind of cage—an Enriched Cage—that might not be so bad.

Enriched Cages are an attempt to mitigate the problems posed by caging and cage-free systems. You can see the last URL in today’s article for a live “hen cam” of this system. It is a form of group housing, with areas that allow the chickens to exhibit their natural behaviors: dustbathing, roosting and the use of a nest box. The disease level and cannibalism level is intermediate to that of either existing system. If I had to choose between (A) being a little picked on and a little sick or (B) being potentially eaten by my roommate and dying from plague, I think I pick option A.

And here’s the sad truth. Because it’s still a cage, and because the chickens can’t all fully extend their wings and turn around without touching each other (see Proposition 2 of California, 2008), certain animal rights groups say this isn’t good enough. They want it outlawed. “No animal should live in a cage” and all that. In all honesty? It makes my blood boil. The data clearly shows that cage-free is horrendous in comparison. Isn’t the enriched caging system better than the system they are pushing–general group housing?

And here’s another thing. Legislation like that of Proposition 2 scares farmers. Why? Too vague. It’s not a hard number to follow, and they risk being shut down for a violation when they thought they were following the rules.

And as a last point. A small farm that houses a few chickens that are well taken care of can’t meet the market demand for eggs. And, while in the beef and pork industries, your primary concern is size–and happy cattle and pigs grow better–eggs is a game of numbers. How many can you crank out? Because they’re coming daily no matter what. The cost of happy chickens doesn’t balance. And it’s not the farmer’s fault–if they don’t meet the market demand, they go out of business and now they can’t feed their own families. The best way to address animal welfare in the food industry is to be clever and make it profitable and humane, as is the case with just about every other animal in the industry.

So, you want to feel good about eating eggs? Visit your local egg farms and decide which ones you like. Or raise your own laying hens (I’ve heard mixed things from friends who own chickens—some fight, some play nice. This is thought to be related to population size). Or, you can just trust me and give enriched cages a little extra “hurrah!”

See also:

https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/AVMA-issues-A-Comparison-of-Cage-and-Non-Cage-Systems-for-Housing-Laying-Hens.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposition_2 (I apologize for using wikipedia as a resource, but the official text of Proposition 2 is now a dead link)

http://www.laywel.eu/web/xmlappservletfc2c.html?action=ProcessSelection&REDIRECT_TEMPLATE=ShowPage&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_SOURCE_DATABASE_NAME=/flexyz/projects/wur/fx_cm_laywel.nsf&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_DESIGN_CHOICE=interzorg/default&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_TEMPLATE_NAME=frontpage&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_SOURCE_DOCUMENT_NAME=furnished&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_NO_CACHE=TRUE%09

http://www.jswest.com/index.php/component/content/article/119

Myth Buster: There’s pus in the milk! (No, not really)

When you’re a city kid, like me, and you’ve grown up disconnected from the farm world, like me, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false when it comes to what you eat and where it comes from.

I’ve read it in books. I’ve heard it from peers. I’ve heard it from smart, educated people whom I respect. “There’s pus in the milk! The milk pumps irritate the udder, and there’s blood and pus that comes out with the milk! I saw a video of it!”

… no. My farm-savvy relatives nipped that one in the bud the moment I mentioned it. And now I have the opportunity to hang around dairies regularly and report what goes on.

Here’s a basic rundown of how it works at a California dairy. The cows are milked about twice a day. So far, I’ve never seen pus come out of udders as I stand to watch, washing off my work boots in the milk parlor. I see the dairy workers “stripping” the milk—a phrase that means “squirting some milk from the udder on the floor so they can see if there’s any pus or blood in it”. I see the dairy workers dipping the teats in a “pre-dip”, an antiseptic to kill bacteria (all the cows are using the same milk pumps so you want to make sure you prevent disease outbreak in the same way that you would wash your hands). These little suction pumps are put on the cows and they are milked. Purportedly, they enjoy this—some of them wait outside the milk parlor to be milked. Then, the dairy workers dip the teats again so no bacteria gets inside the teat. Bactera can cause a painful condition called mastitis.

Some humans might be familiar with mastitis. It happens to women as well. And whether you are a cow or a woman, lactation always carries a risk for mastitis. The symptoms? Inflammation, pus and blood.

But wait. I just said there ISN’T pus in the milk, right?

Let me explain.

First of all, there was the milk stripping that happened before anyone was milked. If there was, the cow would be marked to go to the sick pen. After that, guess what the curative treatment is?

You milk it out.

This milk doesn’t go into the bulk tank (where all the other milk is) but you have to milk out the pus to give the udder a chance to heal. Maybe this process is what people are seeing in undercover dairy videos. But it wouldn’t go into the bulk tank at a conventional dairy. Practically impossible.

Want to know why?

We got to the part where the cows were already milked. The milk is then stored in a bulk tank, where it awaits the milk truck to take it all away. The man on the truck takes a small sample of the milk for testing, which will go to a lab. The man then loads all the milk on the truck, to be pooled with all the milk the truck picked up from different dairies that day.

The milk sample goes to a lab. The lab tests for something called “somatic cell count”—a high number of somatic cells indicates potential mastitis. The magic number for the federal government is not exceeding 750,000 cells per milliliter. Remember, some cells are not avoidable. They’re tiny. Whenever you touch anything, you leave your cells behind–same thing for a cow. Nevertheless, California standards are stricter—not exceeding 600,000 cells per milliliter. As if to say, We’re California. We Take Our Milk Seriously.

But that’s not all. California tests for bacterial counts, generally, and coliform counts, specifically (coliform is a bacterial strain reflective of sanitation). Again, it’s impossible to have no bacteria. It’s impossible to live in an antiseptic world. The magic numbers for California: (Raw milk) not more than 50,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 750 bacteria per millilliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. Not more than 750 coliform bacteria per milliliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. (Market milk) not more than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter of milk.

What happens if one sample from one dairy exceeds the limits?

All the milk on that truck is dumped. All of it. And the dairyman responsible for the waste pays for it.

So, no. Maybe, maybe you have trace amounts of red or white blood cells in milk, but like I said, it’s trace amounts.

And I keep hearing, “The blood is there, you just can’t see it because it was homogenized.” O.K. I’m no artist, but I didn’t know that red and white make white. Tell you what. Take a measure of blood, a good one or two ounces, and dump it in a half-quart of milk. Run your blender. When the blood disappears, call me.

See also:

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Relationship+of+somatic+cell+count+and+mastitis%3a+an+overview.-a0250999930

http://www.fao.org/AG/AGAInfo/resources/documents/MPGuide/mpguide2.htm

http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/ahfss/Milk_and_Dairy_Food_Safety/Milk_Standards.html

http://cetulare.ucdavis.edu/newsletters/California_Dairy_Newsletter31052.pdf

Slaughterhouse 5 (no, not really)

My first post on CAW.

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Let’s talk slaughter.

Yesterday in Fresno, the Central Valley Meat Company slaughterhouse was shut down by the feds after the authorities received an undercover video that revealed cruel and unusual treatment of the cattle. I won’t link the video (sorry, I love cows, and it hurt my feelings) but anyone who knows how to use Yahoo or Google will know how to find it.

So, let’s talk slaughter. The slaughterhouse did something wrong—it abused its animals. Against the law—shut down. So far so good. On the other hand, one must be cautious when receiving undercover footage. The material can be misleading or edited for the purpose of whatever group produced the video, and really, all that has been done before. But I’m not here to discuss whether I think the video is legitimate or not. It looks real and upsetting, but I will leave that for the authorities to decide.

What intrigued me was the way in which the story was presented—a rare media peek, if you will, into the world of food animal production. CNN’s Kat Kinsman explained that this is not how slaughter is normally done, and that this was cruel and unusual. What is a normal slaughter? “Peaceful,” Kinsman said. “A captive bolt gun is used on their brain, preventing them from feeling anything. After that, they are bled out.” A captive bolt gun is simply a gun with a pin instead of a bullet, that bursts out with great force, but does not leave the gun. The animal becomes insensate to pain and can bleed out without said pain.

Well, that’s interesting. I went through high school, some college and—heck—generally life hearing that food animals were killed with a shotgun (for the record, legal but just not done at a slaughterhouse). Or that they were beheaded. And that the adrenaline rush from the fear and pain made the meat practically toxic.

Thank you, Kat Kinsman, for telling it like it is.

Although… she did miss a few things that I find  personally fascinating. Like, that is illegal to sell a sick animal to a slaughterhouse. A sick animal causes concern for tainted food. And, when an animal is bruised, the bruised meat must be cut from the carcass and discarded. Great incentive for treating your animals well. And the chutes that lead cattle to the slaughterhouse floor are designed to comfort the cattle—they are led, single file, down a curvy road, that mimics their natural pattern of moving. Happy cattle are just easy to work with. And by the end of it, meat from an unstressed cattle tastes better.

That’s because there is natural sugar (glycogen) in the muscles of cattle (and humans) that is used up when in fear or excitement. When it’s used up, the muscle becomes tough. When it remains, the sugar turns to a lactic acid and makes the meat tender. The difference is actually visible, so you can go to the store and see which cuts came from a calm animal and which cuts came from a stressed animal. Check the last link in this entry to see the difference between “pale soft exudative” meat (bad), normal meat (g00d) and “dark firm dry” meat (bad).

What is some good advice for looking at undercover animal welfare videos?

  1. Is the video old? If the video is old, it cannot be weighed against modern slaughter practices. Organizations like PETA and HSUS have no qualms with showing you footage that is decades old to get a rise.
  2. What are you looking at, exactly? Things can happen in a video that seem horrific to the average consumer, but when explained by a veterinarian or some other professional, it becomes understandable. For example, it is not uncommon for a slaughtered or brain dead animal to twitch its muscles in violent ways that make it seem like it’s in pain. I have personally seen a sheep with its head removed from its body still twitching its tongue and moving its jaw, and I have known another that has gone to the slaughterhouse to pick up a beef heart, and went home with the heart pounding in the ice chest. What you must do is look at the head, for expressiveness. If you’re around food animals a lot, you know the difference.
  3. Is the video edited?
  4. Weigh the video against statements made by those in the industry, veterinarians and the concerned public and make your own judgement from there. In my experience, those in the industry are just as horrified as everyone else when something goes wrong.

And, when you do see legitimate animal cruelty videos, as awful as they are, remember this: one video of a parent beating their child does not mean all parents are abusive. One video of a pet owner beating their pet does not mean all pet owners are abusive. One video of a slaughterman/rancher/dairyman abusing their animal does not speak for all people in food animal agriculture.

Now, if you’re a vegetarian because you’re worried about animals in pain, I can assure you that there are ways around it. Know your farmer. Know your slaughtermen. They can be very nice people—really—who take their job very seriously.

On the other hand, you might love animals and think all of this is creepy. You’re taking living, thinking cattle, and you’re making them happy and secure as you lead them to death. Valid point. I’m just a person with an undying love of animals, and understanding of vegetarianism and a craving for meat. If animals are going to die to feed the country, then this is how I want them to die.

If you would like to know more, the following are helpful links:

http://grandin.com/

http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stuscafood_ag_19501_19503.htm

http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1412&context=lcp

http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/X6909E/x6909e04.htm

Post Script—”cows” are female cattle. “Bulls” are male cattle and “steers” are castrated male cattle. Don’t call all cattle cows, especially in front of farmers—you’ll only look silly.