Negative stories about livestock transportation are commonly followed by demands to harmonize Canada’s transport regulations with those in Europe. But will this actually benefit the animals? Alberta Beef Producers and the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association each funded large-scale research studies to find out how standard industry transport practices affect cattle.
What they did
In Alberta, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein’s post-doctoral fellow Dr. Luciano Gonzlez and University of Saskatchewan graduate student Michelle Bryan examined the impact on cattle of long (over 400 km) and short (less than 400 km) hauls. University of Guelph professors Ira Mandell, Ken Bateman, and Tina Widowski, with grad students Matt Thrower and Laura Warren looked at the effect of transport on feeder and finished cattle under Ontario conditions.
Both research teams surveyed producers and commercial truckers, collecting detailed information about the drivers, equipment used, animals hauled, loading practices, transport conditions, and animal welfare at unloading (sweating, panting, shrink, lameness, downers and mortality). In total, the Alberta and Ontario studies collected data on over 10,000 loads and more than half a million cattle. The Ontario finished cattle study was published in the June 2010 issue of the CANADIAN JOURNAL OF ANIMAL SCIENCE.
What they learned
Driver experience: Equal proportions of Alberta long-haul drivers had less than two years (31 per cent), 3-10 years (32 per cent) or more than 10 years of experience hauling cattle (35 per cent). Short-haul drivers had more experience (68 per cent had hauled livestock for more than 10 years). Ontario truckers averaged 16 years of experience hauling finished cattle.
Cattle class: In the Alberta study, the majority of animals were finished cattle (63 per cent); 27 per cent were feeders over 600 pounds., seven per cent were weaned calves, and three per cent were market cows. The Ontario study consisted of finished steers (55 per cent), heifers (20 per cent) and mixed loads (25 per cent). Time on truck: Long-haul trips averaged 16 hours, and 95 per cent of cattle spent less than 32 hours in transit in Alberta. The Ontario finished cattle averaged 4.5 hours in transit, and 98 per cent spent 32 hours or less in transit.
Transport delays: Mandatory paperwork and inspections at the Canada-U. S. border delayed 77 per cent of Alberta long-haul journeys. The delays averaged 1.3 hours, and in the worst case as long as 15 hours. On average, border delays were longer for feeders (nearly four hours) than finished cattle (one hour). Delays due to drivers’ rest stops and waiting to unload cattle after arrival at the destination were also important. Interestingly, the unloading delays for Canadian cattle at U. S. packing plants tripled from 38 minutes before mandatory country-of-origin labelling to an hour and three quarters after mandatory COOL was implemented in the fall of 2008. Temperature in transit: Temperatures ranged from -42 to 45 in Alberta and -29 to 32 in Ontario. In spite of the lower temperatures observed in Alberta, sideboards on transports were used on fewer than one per cent of the trips monitored in that province. Sideboard use was much more common in Ontario.
Loading density: Densities were highest for Alberta calves and feeders compared to recommended loading densities. Market cows in Alberta and finished cattle in Alberta and Ontario were loaded near or below recommended loading densities.
How do standard industry transport practices impact animal health and welfare? Over 99.8 per cent of Ontario finished cattle, 99.95 per cent of Alberta long-hauled cattle and 99.98 per cent of Alberta short-haul cattle reached their destination injury-free.
Lameness and mortalities appeared to be random events in the Ontario study, and could not be clearly attributed to any specifitransport management activities. In Alberta, the risk of injury (lame, downer, or dead) was higher on long-haul than short-haul journeys, and was highest in market cows, intermediate in calves, and lowest in feeder and finished cattle. Injuries were generally more prevalent on trips with less experienced drivers, and increased with higher temperatures in finished cattle, long transit times and high levels of shrink and loading density.
What it means
Although the overwhelming majority of cattle were transported without incident during these studies, market cows and weaned calves were identified to be at higher risk.
Canada’s Beef Science Cluster is funding another project led by Dr. Schwartzkopf-Genswein to determine whether adjusting loading density or the use of sideboards can improve the safety of these animals during transport and the subsequent health and performance of weaned calves in the feedlot. This will complement the ongoing work of the research teams described above as they continue to study the conditions of feeder cattle during transport.
It may be challenging to develop one-size-fits-all regulatory amendments covering reduced transit times, specified loading densities, or prescribed feed, water and rest breaks that will improve outcomes for a tiny minority of cattle (less than 0.2 per cent) without accidentally harming some of the 99.8 per cent majority of cattle that are currently arriving at their destination without incident.
In the end, cattle may benefit more from an outcome-based regulation in which regulatory penalties are only triggered when cattle are harmed due to negligence.