Better tools needed to keep unfit cattle off the truck

Research: News Roundup from the August 2018 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Researchers have found that improving guidelines for identifying compromised and unfit cattle prior to transport could help lower the number of these animals being transported.

A study by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) on the prevalence of compromised and unfit cattle coming into Alberta auction markets and abattoirs has found that while most of these animals are being dealt with properly, there is room for improvement in terms of assessing cattle prior to transport.

“Putting compromised or unfit animals on a truck is just absolutely not what we want to be doing,” said Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, senior scientist with AAFC. “It puts a really negative mark on our industry if we continue to do some of these things, and so we just have to be really vigilant.”

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In a presentation at the 2018 UCVM Beef Cattle Conference on June 21 in Calgary, Schwartzkopf-Genswein explained that compromised is defined as “reduced capacity to withstand transport, but with special provision can be transported without undue suffering.” This means the animal cannot be transported for sale at an auction market. “They can be transported either locally… for three reasons: to receive care, to be euthanized or humanely slaughtered,” she said.

An unfit animal has “reduced capacity to withstand transport, with high risk of it leading to undue suffering, so they can only be transported locally very short distances, and only for veterinary care or euthanasia.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Compromised Animal Policy includes a list of conditions that would categorize an animal as compromised or unfit, but Schwartzkopf-Genswein argued that some conditions are difficult to identify. The researchers developed an improved standardized assessment tool, using the current CFIA guidelines and adjusting them based on their findings. This tool needs to be “very understandable and repeatable for everybody in the industry,” she said.

The two-year study, funded by Alberta Farm Animal Care and a number of commodity groups, involved eight auction markets, 11 provincial abattoirs and one federal abattoir. Observers visited each location numerous times over the course of a year and recorded the number of fit, compromised and unfit cattle arriving, the conditions affecting the cattle deemed compromised and unfit, and how those cattle were dealt with. Of the cattle sampled about 70 per cent were feeder or fat cattle and around 30 per cent were mature cattle.

The study found that the majority of cattle arriving at each type of facility were fit for transport. The federal abattoir had the highest percentage of fit animals arriving, while the provincial abattoirs saw the highest percentage of compromised cattle, illustrating that they are being managed properly. “That’s really where they should be going,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “Those poor-doing animals should go local to a provincial abattoir and not into the auction or the federal abattoir.”

The most prevalent conditions observed across all locations were emaciation (body condition score of less than two), heavy lactation, pain indicators, moderate to severe lameness, respiratory issues and injuries to the head, neck and limbs.

Factors such as increased temperature, transport distance and market price increased the likelihood of cattle arriving to these locations compromised or unfit. A larger group size decreased these odds, which Schwartzkopf-Genswein connected to the way these animals are marketed. “The most compromised or even unfit animals that would go to the provincial abattoirs actually go on small trailer load. They wouldn’t go on the big cattle liners to the federal plants.”

Generally, Schwartzkopf-Genswein noted that the findings were mostly positive. “I think overall we’re doing actually a very good job,” she said. “Depending on location, between 70 and 90 per cent of them were fit coming in to all locations.” However, better identifying these conditions will improve the results. “If we can become better at identifying and coming up with a good criteria of how we identify those animals, and then educate all of our stakeholders, I think that will really help.”

The researchers would like to conduct a national study on this topic, and take a look at the “final destinations of those compromised cattle sold at auctions,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “I think it would be really interesting to know what’s going on at that point.”

The full results of the study will be released once it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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