Cow-calf commentary: The idiot stick


KIMBALL, Neb. – In Audie Murphy’s WWII memoir, To Hell and Back, he recounts the story of a working party of soldiers sent out into no-man’s land in the middle of the night to bury a couple of dead cows.

The location was the south of France in late-summer, 1944. American and Nazi forces were locked in a horrific struggle, with the Americans advancing across the many small farms of the region and the Nazi’s offering strong resistance. The French farmers and their families had fled the battleground, but most of the livestock were left behind, and the battle slaughtered cattle, horses and sheep in their
thousands.

Late-summer temperatures caused the carcasses to bloat and decompose, until the smell was bad enough to send combat soldiers out with shovels instead of rifles in an attempt to reduce the awful miasma.

One of the soldiers in the burial party, a man Murphy called “Horseface” if I recall correctly, made a comment about carrying what he called an “idiot spoon.” Another soldier, who may have been called “Snuffy,” asked, “What’s an
idiot spoon?”

“In the proper hands” replied Horseface, “it’s a tool for an idiot.”

Last Sunday we shipped calves.

For the most part, 2017 has been a great year for raising cattle on the EJE. Rainfall was timely and adequate and mother nature did the rest, providing abundant grass. The calves grew like weeds.

Shipping day, unfortunately, was not such a good day.

It started well out well enough. I moved the cows and calves into my newly-redesigned corrals and sorted the cows off with ease. It was a lovely day, with warm sunshine burning off the overnight frost and allowing me to cast aside my sweatshirt by 8 a.m. Sorting the cows off was a lovely experience, and the level of stress remained low for man and beast.

That all changed when the truck arrived. Three burly truckers invaded the corrals, each armed with a prized “hotshot” or cattle prod.

A cattle prod is essentially a large plastic stick with a battery pack handle and electrodes on the tip. The purpose of the device is to deliver a painful shock. They are supposed to be used sparingly and as a last resort to urge a recalcitrant critter forward. Unfortunately, some folks zap every animal they can reach. And they do it constantly, regardless of the situation. Our truck drivers were of
that ilk.

My personal dilemma was figuring out how to educate the truckers on the proper use of the cattle prod without losing my temper. My gut reaction – which I did not employ – was to snatch away the hot shots and either smash them or give the truckers a dose of their own medicine, perhaps accompanied by a few punches and kicks.

But as a grownup I realize that education is really the key. In this situation, teaching by showing seemed to be the proper approach. So I waded into the fray and tried to demonstrate proper low-stress cattle handling techniques.

It didn’t do much good. The truckers continued to lash out with the hot shots, zapping every calf they could reach, regardless of the situation in the pen. One moron posted himself right by the chute, hot-shotting away and bellowing at the top of his voice, “YAH— YAH — YAH!” The calves swirled around the pen, wild-eyed, skidding and scampering, desperate for a way out. Each lash of the hot shot prompted a pain- and terror-filled bellow.

The moron couldn’t do the math, couldn’t figure out why the calves didn’t line up and calmly file past him and up the chute into the truck.

The other two assisted by continually zapping from behind.

The scene nearly made me physically sick. And it made me intensely angry. For the first time in their lives, these calves were being mistreated. After months of watching them grow from birth, of husbanding to their needs and treating them with the care and respect they deserve, I was incensed by the abuse.

Physically mistreating those calves was both counterproductive and morally reprehensible. Such treatment may have been the norm in the past, but it needs to be stamped out in the present and future. For many reasons.

Firstly, capturing such treatment on video and posting it on the internet is the dream of every animal rights activist. These people want all animals set free, and for the human consumption of meat to end immediately and forever. These are goals I clearly don’t agree with, but I do agree with such activists when they say that the indiscriminate use of cattle prods is simple torture. So long as anyone in the food-animal production business, including our truck drivers, are torturing a single animal, the animal rights folks potentially get free ammunition to use against the production ag sector, and proof that at least one of their claims is true.

Secondly, and most importantly, we have a responsibility to treat our livestock with best practices and with the care and respect they deserve. They feed us and clothe us, make possible our chosen life and lifestyle, nourish our grasslands, and provide us joy and delight in our daily lives. Intentionally mistreating livestock is the antithesis of animal husbandry. It’s a sick and disgusting practice.

Thirdly, proper animal husbandry is an economic plus for the producer. Study after study proves that reduced stress for the animals equals increased profitability. Unstressed animals are simply healthier animals which grow better and produce an excellent, flavorful and highly nutritious product. Adding stress decreases health and vigor and adversely affects the meat product.

As I said, there is a place for the cattle prod. In the hands of stockman it can be the right tool for the right job. In the hands of an idiot, however, it’s an idiot stick, and a torture device in the hands of
a torturer.

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