SmartBeef 2023: ALFA launches pen riding course, as experts show how it’s done

James Nason, 26/10/2023

THE calm scene of a rider and horse slowly threading through a pen of feedlot cattle masks the complexity of interactions and diagnostic calls taking place.

From their vantage point in the saddle, Elders Killara Feedlot’s Billie-Jean Svenson and Jorjia Edwards provided a masterclass in pen riding techniques to an attentive audience of feedlot owners and staff from all over the country at ALFA’s recent SmartBeef 2023 event earlier this month.

In partnership the two riders moved silently in zigzag patterns through a mob of about 20 steers, working the cattle into smaller groups, pausing on approach and applying careful pressure where needed to interact with and observe every individual animal for signs of illness or injury.

As prey animals cattle will try to hide anything that may be wrong, a survival instinct programmed through evolution to protect themselves from predators.

It takes skill and patience for a pen rider to quietly move and effectively assess every individual animal in a mob.

Smithfield Cattle Co’s Ryan Brown and Dr Lachlan Strohfeldt from Protein Production Vets at SmartBeef 2023.

Through interacting with every animal “we are asking that animal to tell us ‘I’m okay today’,” Dr Lachlan Strohfeldt from Protein Production Vets explained, as he provided expert insights alongside Smithfield Cattle Company’s Ryan Brown in commentary during the pen riding demonstrations.

“As animals file in front, Jorjia can have a perfect look at them from nose to tail, she can tell when they’re dragging their feet, look at their respiratory secretions to see if there is anything coming out of their nose, she can assess their rumen fill because she has got a very high vantage point,” he explained.

Pen riding “is never done well standing still”, he added.

The job of a pen rider is arguably the most important in a feedlot.

“These guys are the forefront of animal wellbeing,” Dr Strohfeldt later told Beef Central.

“They’re there every day – rain, hail, shine, and in some places snow – to care for cattle, and I think it is a very noble profession.”

New Pen Riding course

The SmartBeef session drew attention to the Fundamentals of Pen Riding course recently introduced to ALFA’s Feedlot Tech e-learning program, which allows members of feedlot livestock teams to access six modules detailing best practice techniques.

The course aims to standardise knowledge and skills across the industry in pen riding, including identifying, assessing and understanding animal health, removing animals from the pen and best practice in horse husbandry.

The course was funded by grain-fed levies and matching federal government R&D dollars, and was developed by ALFA with Ryan Brown and Dr Julie Brown of Western Noble House Veterinary Services.

“It is an online educational tool for caregivers in the industry to undertake self-guided learning,” Mr Brown said.

“It is immersive learning, it gives a theoretical understanding of why we are doing this and reinforces the messages of their livestock managers and veterinarians and nutritionists.”

Dr Strohfeldt said yards with a good history of investing in team training benefitted from higher rates of staff retention and feedlot performance.

“People are more fulfilled and more effective in their job and that shows in cattle health and their well-being as well, and we can track that through metrics.”

What makes a good pen rider?

“Someone that is observant, somebody that has attention to detail and a deep care to animals, and I think we have a lot of people like that in our industry,” Dr Strohfeldt said.

Ryan Brown said that while there could be more than one way to effectively do a task, standardisation was important to ensure good results.

“We can have situations where two experienced operators are working on an animal handling task together, but have different plans in mind.

Lachlan and Ryan commentating the pen riding demonstration.

“Neither of them are wrong, both of them can ultimately be successful, but if it is not the same plan in both of those senior operators, it is still going to be a negative result, because they’re not working together.

“They’re influencing one mob of cattle in two very different ways.

‘So the purpose of this program is to develop Standard Operating Procedures.

“We’re not suggesting it is the only way to do a job, but we have an understanding that every individual there knows what their role in the greater task is.”

Animal handling is “an evolving continuum”, Dr Strohfeldt observed to the audience.

“If we just look back 10 years at how we handle cattle even and compare it to today, it is the same but it is nuanced in its difference

“And I think I think the role of Feedlot Tech, is not to make you a gun pen rider, it is to give you the tools that you need to process information from other sources and add into your experience

“So the more you know and you get back and you learn some more, it is so much more impactful.”

VIDEO: Feedlot careers – What is a pen rider?


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