Feedlot shade boosts cattle welfare

A 2018 study found that cattle confined to unshaded pens exhibited “more aggressive behaviour” during summer, indicating they were more stressed.

27 February 2020 | Agriculture

A study on the benefits of shade and other environmental enrichments on animal welfare and production at a large Namibian cattle feedlot found access to shade boosted animal welfare but did not impact weight gain as expected.

The study, published in 2018 by Stellenbosch alumni Cornelia Kahl, showed unshaded feedlot cattle had a “300-gram higher daily weight gain compared to the shade group”.

On the other hand, cattle with access to shade “experienced better welfare due to the availability of shading,” the study titled 'Enhancing animal welfare and improving production performance of feedlot cattle by introducing forms of environmental enrichment' found.

Positive behaviours such as increased bonding and rubbing in the shaded groups were observed and indicated “happier and calmer” animals.

Cattle confined to unshaded pens in general exhibited “more aggressive behaviour” during summer, indicating they were more stressed.

Kahl's thesis states the higher weight gain in unshaded pens “was not expected”.

Previous studies on feedlot welfare and production had shown that the addition of overhead shelter could boost weight gain, as heat stress undermined weight gain.

One possible link Kahl's thesis highlighted for the finding was a higher water intake during summer, which in turn is theorised to stimulate feed uptake.

“Cattle in pens with shading are able to cool down under the netting and spent less time at the water trough.”

The findings overall showed when shade is available, it is used significantly during summer.

And on days when temperatures exceeded 35 degrees Celsius, “very few were in the non-shaded area of the pen”, the research showed.

The findings recount that three months into the study, the feedlot's veterinarian “insisted that shading should be set up in the recovery pen as well. She was convinced that shade structures reduced stress under high temperature conditions and would assist in animal recovery.”



Not now

Okapuka feedlot manager Frikkie Booysen confirmed last week that four pens are currently equipped with shading, which are designated sick bays and where calves and mothers are housed.

Booysen emphasised that animal welfare is a top priority for the feedlot but there are no current plans to equip all pens with shade.

“Welfare is very important. We however don't view shade as a priority at this moment,” he said, adding that from a production standpoint, shading is not warranted.

Booysen said animal welfare is an important aspect of the feedlot's day-to-day running, pointing out that feedlot operations require 24/7 focus on fresh water and food provision, and ensuring all animals are in a healthy condition, and that immediate steps are taken when animals are sick or in distress.

He said the condition of the animals and how they are managed during their stay is crucial, not only for optimal production levels but to ensure that Meatco's partners and clients are happy with management practices at the feedlot, which are closely scrutinised.



Pricey

Booysen said under the current challenges facing agriculture in Namibia, the building of costly infrastructure is however not on the cards. The expenditure for the shade structures used during the study totalled N$234 000, which Kahl noted “might seem very high, but when observing how the cattle prefer to spend most of their time during the day under the shading, makes it a worthwhile investment”.

The thesis highlights increased focus by consumers on welfare at feedlots and their willingness to pay higher prices to ensure high standards.

The study notes that with Namibian beef mainly destined for export to Europe and Norway, “the potential of meeting a discerning modern consumer's concern about animal welfare cannot be underestimated”.

Moreover, Norway showed a willingness to invest in shade infrastructure at Okapuka “as they believe shading in Namibia is important for the welfare of the cattle”, the thesis states.

Booysen stressed that although Meatco does not outright dismiss the idea of additional shaded pens, “at this stage we are not in a situation to spend money on shade”.

He invited anyone concerned to visit the feedlot to observe the animals and underlined “it's of utter importance that our animals are healthy and that they are well looked after”. He said heat stress has rarely been identified at the feedlot during his more than a decade there.

He added that Namibian cattle are well-adjusted to the country's harsh climate, and the study confirms Namibian cattle “readily adapted to the extreme weather conditions”.

To date Namibia's feedlot operations have been self-regulated.

Meat Board standards manager Dr Anja Boshoff last week confirmed work is underway to finalise standards for Namibia's feedlot industry.

She said the standards will include recommendations for the alleviation of heat stress, including shade and sprinklers, among other guidelines.

JANA-MARI SMITH

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