An engineer on this project thought my proposed plan was inconceivable and said cattle wouldn’t climb a seventeen-foot rise from the ground floor of the pens to the restrainer. I’d seen plenty of cattle walk up steps and climb steep hillsides without a problem, so I knew if the steps were not too steep, they should be okay with the rise in elevation. My plan called for forty-six steps inside the single-file chute, 3.5 in. high—a seventeen-foot rise over sixty-four feet. The steps were low, with deep grooves to prevent slipping and eighteen inches wide to prevent tripping. It’s awkward for such a heavy animal to climb steps, but their momentum carries them to the top once they get going. They rarely stop in mid-climb. The chute walls are six feet tall, reinforced concrete, and finished smooth with no sharp edges that cause bruising.
Cattle come from the company feed yard, less than a quarter mile away. Cattle walk from the feed yard to the holding pens at the plant. One man walks down the alley in front of the cattle to keep them in a slow walk and another behind to keep them moving and prevent any from turning around. Once in the holding pens, the cattle rest for about an hour before the next stage of the journey. When that time comes, handlers move ten to twelve cattle from the pens to the crowd pen. The best practice is to fill the crowd pen at most half full. Too many cattle in the pen block the entrance to the single-file chute. When the crowd pen is half full, and the cattle can move around, one animal always takes the lead into the single-file chute, and the rest tend to follow. When working perfectly, the crowd gate is unnecessary, and the crowd pen becomes a “pass thru pen” with no crowding necessary.
The stairway to heaven begins twenty feet inside the single-file race at the 180-degree turn. At the top of the steps is a 30-foot level area where cattle catch their breath and wait their turn. All the cattle see from here is a bright glow from the light at the end of the line.
The restrainer is well-lit, with lights mounted above and to the sides and shining into the restrainer, not onto the eyes of the cattle. Cattle are attracted to light, like a moth to a flame, so they walk into restrainers best when it’s brighter inside the box than outside. Once in the box, the restrainer has a butt pusher that gently eases the animal forward until it puts its head in the head holder. The hydraulics on the head holder lift from under the chin, holding the head immobile. The stunner operator then steps in front and takes the shot. A well-placed shot to the brain with a captive bolt stunner does so much damage to the brain that it renders the animal instantly unconscious and unable to feel pain, effectively turning off the brain. Because the brain controls the lungs, the lungs shut down and stop supplying the heart with oxygen-the fuel the heart needs to continue beating. But, the internal pacemaker in the heart continues the beat until the residual fuel runs out. The first few beats are strong, then slowly fade before stopping completely. The process only takes a few seconds, but before the animal drops from the box, the operator touches the eye with the tip of a finger—this tests the corneal reflex, blinking. Only live animals can blink.
With the adaptation of a head holder, you can guarantee a one-shot kill—a vital consideration for any processing plant. Besides the welfare consideration, major meat buyers in the U.S. conduct humane audits on their suppliers. A one-shot kill is mandatory.
I don’t believe cattle know where they’re going. If a meat plant resembles handling systems the cattle have been through at the feed yard or on a ranch, maybe they anticipate something like a squeeze chute at the end, and experience some anxiety, but it shouldn’t cause fear.
There is hardly an animal in nature – humans included- that dies as quickly and painlessly. Nature is not this humane.