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Canada sets the bar for feedlot animal care

Buttons were bursting with pride at the National Cattle Feeders’ Association (NCFA) with the recent release of the first national certified program in North America for assessing the care of beef animals in backgrounding and finishing operations.

Officially known as the Canadian Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program, it is an auditable seal of approval for the care given to feedlot cattle that can stand up in corporate boardrooms and the court of public opinion.

While virtually every link of the beef chain has been involved in its creation, the NCFA has been driving this project from the beginning.

The program received the official nod of approval from the NCFA board in February hard on the heels of being certified by the U.S.-based Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) in December. The final approval came through in late March with formal recognition by Canada’s National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) that it meets all the requirements of the national Animal Care Assessment Framework for developing assessments based on codes of practice.

Picture Butte, Alta., feedlot veterinarian Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed, the NCFA’s manager for this project, says the program was intended to fill a gap in the beef chain. In recent years, packing plants have come under increasing pressure from retailers for proof of diligent animal care, not only at the plants, but also at the feedlots that supply their cattle.

For some time now large packers in Canada and the U.S. have followed the PAACO-accredited North American Meat Institute’s (NAMI) animal-handling and audit guidelines. Eventually, some started asking feeders to sign affidavits confirming animal-care practices on their operations. Members of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA) were confident the animal-care guidelines in the beef code of practice were being met but worried that they had no way of proving their claim.

“Chaos all around,” would have been the result, says Van Donkersgoed, if packers had started asking feeders for multiple audits to suit each retail customer’s requests.

To get in front of this situation, the NCFA set up an advisory group in 2014 to develop a common assessment program that could be used by feedlots and processors. It had to be voluntary, affordable, credible and workable for all.

With funding from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and Growing Forward 2, Van Donkersgoed and Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, an animal behaviourist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at Lethbridge, developed a draft under the direction of the advisory committee members representing Canadian and U.S. cattle buyers, retailers, restaurants, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, feedlot veterinarians, PAACO, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, dairy producers and feedlot members of the NCFA and ACFA.

In 2015 Van Donkersgoed and Schwartzkopf-Genswein with veterinarians from Feedlot Health Management Services, Veterinary Agri-Health Services, and Coaldale Veterinary Clinic in Alberta, Dr. Kelly Lightfoot in Saskatchewan, and staff from Beef Producers of Quebec tested the assessment and audit forms at 22 outdoor and indoor feedlots ranging in size from 1,500 to 30,000 head across Western Canada and Quebec to be sure it was adaptable to all scenarios. Jim Clark, head of Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association and the Ontario Corn Fed Beef Program also reviewed it.

What’s in it?

The committee also reviewed the PAACO-certified Common Swine Industry Audit developed by U.S. pork industry and guidelines in the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Beef Quality Assurance Program. The NCBA has a copy of the Canadian program and is working toward developing a similar feedlot animal-care assessment program for the U.S. The hope is packers, retailers and producers will eventually have one common standard for feedlots on both sides of the border.

The assessment covers the feedlot’s commitment to animal care in 10 sections dealing with transportation practices, feedlot facilities, cattle handling, nutrition and feeding, environment, animal health management, euthanasia and salvage, care of other working feedlot animals, egregious acts of neglect and wilful acts of abuse.

There are three reasons for automatic failure of an audit: failure to participate in an audit, egregious acts of neglect and wilful abuse, and lack of efficient euthanasia. Acceptable minimum scores for each section and minimum overall scores will be determined by continuous benchmarking through the coming year.

“We found out from the pilots that most feedlots are already meeting most of the requirements,” says Van Donkersgoed. “The weakest area is probably that they could use a bit more documentation.”

To help with that the advisory committee put together generic templates for various written procedures. Also in the works is an online training course for feedlot personnel to work through as time allows.

What’s next?

Just because a feedlot voluntarily participates in the program doesn’t mean an auditor will come knocking overnight. If and when one does it won’t be a surprise visit. Proper arrangements will be made with the feedlot, as outlined in the program.

“Remember, processors are part of the team. Everyone is on side because they see the benefits and want the program to be successful,” Van Donkersgoed adds.

The benefits, she notes, may go beyond the inherent economic gains related to improved animal health and performance. From her own experience counselling feedlot clients on animal care over the years, she has noted a big difference in staff morale when cattle are healthy and content because nobody likes dealing with chronic conditions and euthanasia. The broader benefit comes from securing the social licence to operate by building and maintaining the trust of customers and the public in feedlot production practices.

PAACO is currently developing a program to train and certify auditors for the program, to ensure they have the necessary cattle-related background to produce a credible audit.

This rollout year will involve more fine tuning based on feedback of producers and processors, testing of the target levels set by the committee, benchmarking to determine minimum scores, preparing additional program materials and reaching out to producers, veterinarians and nutritionists to make sure they are aware of this new program.

In time all the documents and supporting material will be available in both English and French at no cost from the members-only area on provincial feeder association websites where there will be a link to the specific section on the NCFA website. Feedlot producers without Internet access should contact their provincial feeder association. Feedlot producers, veterinarians and nutritionists who aren’t members of a provincial feeder association are encouraged to call the NCFA office (403-769-1519) to find out how to access the documents.

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