Safety is taken seriously by multinational giant Cargill at their beef processing plants.
Steps they take to protect their workers might be worth copying on Irish farms, and in Irish cattle marts or beef factories.
Crash helmets and body protector pads are standard equipment for the workers at Cargill’s beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, who manage the 5,000 cattle per day processed into beef at the plant.
Cargill are very conscious of the safety risks in handling these animals, which average three quarters of a tonne weight, and are unpredictable, like all livestock.
As the cattle are cleared from each pen, the gates close, and the workers wave plastic bags tied to sticks (which is the type of handling aid recommended by North American farm animal welfare bodies), and call out commands to push the cattle forward until the next gate can be closed.
These strict procedures help to prevent injuries.
“You’re herding live animals,” said Matt Croghan, yard supervisor.
However, plant operations manager Brad Churchill found a way to improve safety further, a remote-controlled cattle drover robot.
Cargill modified a robot supplied by a vendor.
They upgrading the body from plastic to metal, and redesigned the wheels to work better on sometimes muddy ground.
Wiry waving arms with plastic bags tied to the ends were added, which whip back and forth, mimicking the sound and motion of the workers.
The robot is also given a recorded voice to help move the animals:“Hey! Hey! Hey! Come on. Let’s move it!”
Cargill workers took well to introduction of their new all-weather robot helper.
It is operated via remote control by a worker standing on catwalks that overlook the pens.
While workers still need to get inside the pens, to close the gates after the cattle exit and travel toward the processing plant, the robot allows workers to keep a greater distance from the animals.
“From a safety standpoint, you don’t have to have an individual there pushing cattle forward,” said Sammy Renteria, general manager at the Schuyler beef plant.
“So, if the animal decides to turn, it’s not a person hurt.
“It’s just a machine that we can fix.”
It has the added advantage of reducing stress for the cattle, by minimising their proximity to human activity.
It has got the blessing of famed livestock welfare expert Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.
“This device will lead to huge strides in employee safety, while moving large animals, and will reduce the stress on cattle across the country.”
She contributed to development of the robot, along with beef plant employees and engineers from equipment supplier Flock Free, which manufactures the robot, now in use at Cargill beef plants in the US and Canada.
It may have multiple future applications for improving livestock handling and worker safety across the farming industry.