Heat Stress and Lameness in Fed Feedlot Cattle is Detrimental to Animal Welfare

By Temple Grandin
Department of Animal Sciences
Colorado State University

Updated February 2018

In the summer of 2006, a severe cattle welfare problem was first observed at three slaughter plants. Large numbers of fed feedlot cattle were lame and a few animals had severe heat stress symptoms. I have worked with cattle for over 30 years and this is the first time I have seen severe heat stress in crossbreds which were part Brahman (Bos Indicus) genetics. The cattle came from three different feedlots. All of the cattle were healthy looking feedlot cattle and their feet looked completely normal. All the animals were clean and came from dry feedlots with no mud. Foot rot can be ruled out because the animals came from lots in an area experiencing a drought. None of the cattle were overweight or over fat. Their estimated live weight was between 450 to 540 kg (1000 to 1200 lbs). At the first plant the temperature was over 38 degrees C (100 F) and the animals were in a lairage equipped with sprinklers. About one third had mild to moderate lameness and no heat stress symptoms. At the second plant, there were a few lame cattle and two healthy feedlot steers refused to get up. The third plant had the worst heat stress problems. The temperature was in the 32 to 34 degrees C (low 90's F) range. The sprinklers were off. Ten to 25% of the animals were mildly to moderately lame. About 5 to 10% were panting and one or two animals from each truck load were lying down and panting hard. Their tongues were hanging out. One animal was sitting like a dog and acted stiff and arthritic when the driver made him get up. I have observed feedlot fed beef cattle during hot weather in Arizona, Australia, and other places where it is very hot. This was the first time I saw this odd combination of lameness and heat stress. All the animals were clean, with smooth coats and no coughing or runny noses. This is a serious problem that must be corrected. To figure out what is causing the problem, one has to ask: What changes have been made in the feeding industry that would have happened during the last two years?

The recent changes are:

  1. Feeding ractopamine to make animals leaner.

  2. Growing and fattening cattle more quickly to reach market weight by 20 months for the export to market.

  3. Feeding wet grain products from ethanol plants. This can be ruled out because this feed was not available during the summer of 2006 in the area where the feedlots were located.

  4. Since 2006 there have been additional reports of heat stress in some cattle that are fed beta-agonists.

In the summer of 2011 I observed fed steers arriving at a plant in over 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) temperatures with severe heat stress and stiff type lameness. These animals walked with a stiff hesitant gait and were definately clinically lame. The percentage of lame steers varied from 5 to 10% on a truck load to 50%. Some animals had open mouth breathing. The hooves had no signs of pathology such as foot rot. It is highly likely that the lameness and open mouth breathing was related to an unknown dose of either Ractopamine or Zilpaterol, which are beta-agonist drugs used for growth promotion. All steers were unloaded promptly at the plant.

Research conducted by Kurt Vogel at Colorado State University as part of doctoral dissertation has shown that certain combinations of beta-agonists and hormone ear implants increased heat stress while other combinations reduced it. In steers, Zilpaterol combined with a Revelor implant was a safer treatment from a heat stress standpoint compared to Zilpateral alone. When Ractopamine was fed, the opposite effect occurred. Ractopamine alone increased susceptibility to heat stress. Difficulty mixing small amounts of beta-agonists into the feed may explain why the beta-agonists used in this study had little effect on weight gain. In the meat plants, I have observed odd, uneven effects where a small percentage of the cattle were severely heat stressed and lame and the others were normal. Official feed testing parameters from the manufacturers of beta-agonists have a wide range of permissible error from 125% to 75% of the correct dose. A single initial feed test showed that the dose was low in our study. Handling the cattle frequently may also have had an effect on the lack of weight gain. This is very preliminary data and this experiment will need to be replicated. Due to a severe illness, some of the feed samples that should have been collected by feed lot management to monitor the dose was not collected. It was important to get information out on the possible beta-agonist/implant interactions and their effect on heat stress.

I recommend measuring outcomes instead of inputs. Fed feedlot cattle that arrive at slaughter plants should be scored for lameness and heat stress symptoms. Feedback should be provided back to the feedlots so that the problem can be corrected. Terry Mader from the University of Nebraska states that when cattle are open mouth panting they have severe heat stress. The first symptom of heat stress is drooling. Cattle that show signs of heat stress must be provided with either sprinklers or shades. When normal cattle breath, the head will remain still. When they are in a pre-heat stress state, their heads will start to bob up and down. Cattle that start to head bob should be carefully watched for further signs of heat stress.

April 2013 Update: Welfare problems observed in feedlot cattle arriving at slaughter plants that have been fed beta-agonists

The author has observed more problems in fed cattle arriving at slaughter plants which had been fed beta-agonists. In most cases where bad effects are observed, the effects were uneven. A few animals were severely affected, 20 to 50% were sore footed lame, and the rest of the group were normal. I have observed this in these types of cattle: Holstiens, Brahman X British X Continental cross steers, and in groups of cattle that were all Bos Tauras beef breeds with no signs of Brahman characteristics.

In hot weather, 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), the severerly affected animals had open mouth panting and a few animals became non-ambulatory. The lame cattle were sore footed on all four feet and they were reluctant to walk quickly down the truck unloading ramp. Normal cattle will run or trot down the ramp. During cooler weather, stiffness has been observed in steers fed Zilpaterol. They act like they have muscle cramps. I have observed one group of cattle fed Zilpaterol that walked normally. They came from a feedlot with a sophisticated mill that would have mixed the feed evenly. There has also been a report of a "statue steer" which walked off the truck and when it was time to be moved to the slaughter line he stood and refused to move. He acted like he was too stiff or sore to move. These observations indicate that there are severe welfare problems in some animals fed beta-agonists. Poor feed mixing may be part of the problem. Cattle arriving at the plant should be evaluated for lameness, heat stress (open mouth breathing), and stiffness. From an animal welfare standpoint, lameness, open mouth breathing, and a stiff gate are not acceptable.

There is also a need for research on a genetic interaction and beta-agonists. I observed a pen of cattle that contained many different breeds. A Simmental steer had become very big and stiff and a Hereford steer appeared more normal. Possibly cattle with a greater genetic potential for muscle growth have more effects.

April 2014 Update

Research by Guy Longeragan at Texax Tech University and Dan Thomson from Kansas State University indicates that both ractopamine and zilpaterol increase death losses in feedlot cattle. There problems are most likely to occur during hot summer weather. The study also indicated that in steers fed zilpaterol, dark cutters increased form 0.53% of the cattle to 1.59%. The entire paper can be downloaded for free.

February 2018 Update

New research on the effects of beta-agonists on mobility (lameness) in cattle indicates that problems with compromised animals increase as the cattle move from the feedlot to the abattoir (Hagenmaier et al, 2017a). All of the problems I had previously observed in cattle fed beta-agonists ocurred when they arrived at the slaughter plant. The temperature was over 32 degrees C (90 degrees F). Both Basczak et al (2006) and Woiwode et al (2013) saw no adverse effects of feeding beta-agonists during handling at the feedlot. The cattle in Basczak et al (2006) were fed ractopamine at a dose of only 200 mg/day.

Both cattle and pig studies show that high doses of beta-agonists and aggressive handling will cause problems (Hagenmaier et al (2017), Peterson et al (2015), Ritter et al (2017), James et al (2011), Puls et al (2015)). Hagenmaier et al (2017b) fed ractopaminefor 28 days at a dose of 400 mg/day. The maximum temperature was 32 degrees C, when the cattle arrived at the abattoir. The controls had 6% of the arriving animals lame and the ractopamine group had 22%. P value 0.09. There were 84 cattle per treatment. After six hours in the lairage the controls had 23% lame and the ractopamine cattle had 17%. P value of 0.43. A possible reason for the odd result is that half the cattle were subjected to either high or a low stress handling prior to loading for the feedlot. Both groups had to move through a 1500 ft long alley. The high stress group was forced to trot. The results section of the paper did not specifi the percentage of lame cattle by handling treatment. Possible animals that were forced to trot developed stiff muscles after resting.

Lameness was assessed using a four poitn scale. It was scored during either truck unloading or movement out of a pen (Edwards et al (2017)). Lameness scoring:

  1. = Normal
  2. = Keeps up with normal walking cattle; slight limp or stiffness
  3. = Lags behid normal walking cattle
  4. = Extremely reluctant to move
In Hagenmaier et al (2017a), the percentage of cattle that were lame was determined by classifying scores 2, 3, and 4 as lame. In Hagenmaier et al (2017b), Bos Tauras beef bred cattle were fed 400 mg/day of ractopamine for a longer 35 day period. Four lower hind legs were collected from four animals with a lameness score of 3 or greater. Three legs came from the high handling stress group and one from the low stress handling group. Abnormalities or necrosis were found in all the legs.

There was an extreme case where the hoof shells fell off of 17 fed beef cattle when they arrived at the slaughter plant (Thomson et al, 2013, Hoffstutter and Polansek, 2013). Industry sources informed me that they had been fed zilpaterol and a very high concentrate diet. I have worked with fed beef cattle at the abattoirs for over 30 years. I have watched thousands of cattle moving through lairages in multiple plants. I have never seen a hoof shell fall off or heard about a foot falling off until beta-agonists came on the market.

When beta-agonists first came on the market I started seeing fed cattle arrive at the abattoir that acted like they had stiff muscles. The best way to describe these animals is that they acted like the lairage floor was red hot. Cattle in the pens often shifted their weight back and forth. Both my own observations and reports from people working in the lairages indicate that temperatures over 35 degrees C (90 degrees F) are when the lameness problems greatly increase.

A study by Stackhouse-Lawson et al (2015) supports the idea that the cattle have sore muscles. Feeding zilpaterol increased the occurrence of cattle lying in the full lateral position. There was also more agonistic pushing and mounting behavior (Stackhouse-Lawson et al, 2015).

For cattle, both the scientific literature and reports from people working in lairages indicate that the combination of high dose beta-agonists and hot weather, increase problems with stiffness and lameness. Both pork and beef studies show that physical exertion and rough handling can increase problems. From a welfare standpoint, the sensible approach is to use the NAMI (2015) four point scoring system to access fed cattle arriving at abattoirs. In beef cattle, hot weather is more likely to cause problems. The bottom line is that lower doses and careful low stress handling may sovle welfare issues. Cattle unloading from a truck at an abattoir should be able to walk normally.


Basczak, J.A. et al, 2006. Effect of ractopamine supplementation on behavior of British Continental and Brahman crossbred steers during routine handling. Journal of Animal Science. 84:3410-3414.

Hagenmaier, J.A. et al, 2017a. Effect of ractopamine hydrochloride on growth performance, carcass characteristics, and physiological responses to different handling techniques. Journal of Animal Science. 95:1977-1992.

Hagenmaier, J.A. et al, 2017b. Effect of handling at the time of transport for slaughter on physiological response and carcass characteristics in beef cattle fed ractopamine hydrochloride. Journal of Animal Science. 95:1963-1976.

James, B.W. et al, 2011. Effects of dietary L-carnitine and ractopamine HCL on the metabolic response to handling in finishing pigs. Journal of Animal Science. 91:4426-4439.

Longeragan, G.H., Thomson, D.U., and Scott, H.M, 2014. Increased mortality in groups of cattle adminstered B-Adrenerger-agonists ractopomine hydrochlonde and Zilpaterol hydro chloride PLUS ONE. 9(3)39117.doi:10.1371/jurnal/pone.0091177.

Peterson, C.M. et al, 2015. Effect of feeding ractopamine hydrochloride on growth performance and responses to handling and transport of heavy weight pigs. Journal of Animal Science. 93:1239-1249.

Puls, C.L. et al, 2015. Impact of ractopamine hydrochloride on growth performance, carcass and pork quality characteristics, and responses to handling and transport in finishing pigs. Journal of Animal Science. 93:1229-1238.

Ritter, M.J. et al, 2017. Review: Effects of ractopamine hydrochloride (Paylean) on welfare indicators in market weight pigs. Translation of Animal Science. 1:533-558.

Stackhouse-Lawson, K.R. et al, 2015. Effects on growth promoting technology on feedlot cattle behavior in the 21 days before slaughter. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 162:1-8.

Thomson, D.U. et al, 2016. Description of a novel fatigue syndrome in finished feedlot cattle following transportation. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association. 247:66-72.

Woiwode, R. and Grandin, T., 2013. Field study on the effect of zilpaterol on the behavior and mobility of brahman cross steers at a commercial feedlot. Final report to National Cattleman's Beef Association, Englewood, Colorado.

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