Beef producers say the second-year results of a three-year study on animal stress and rest during transport support their arguments against last year’s federal regulation changes.
Why it matters: The beef sector is hoping that results from a study on livestock transport stress might convince the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to soften transport regulation changes being phased in.
Last February, federal rules came into force that would mean livestock on the road would have to be rested more often and for longer. Under the new rules, beef cattle must be off the trailer for eight hours after 36 hours of transport, changed from a five-hour rest every 48 hours.
Changes came with a two-year grace period, in which the federal government said rules would be in force, but that enforcement would be more focused on education and awareness than punitive measures.
Changes were first published in 2019. At that time, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency argued that the changes provided more specific guidelines on animal needs such as feed and water and “will also increase consumer confidence, strengthen Canada’s international trade status and facilitate market access.”
The beef sector, however, argues that the rules have little scientific basis. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has pointed to a 2005 study on long-haul trucking out of Alberta. The study found that 99.95 per cent of long-haul cattle arrived at their destination in good condition, although Beef Cattle Research Council science director Reynold Bergen noted in a 2020 interview with the Co-operator that finished cattle (more likely to be healthy than cull cows) played into those results.
Producers raised biosecurity concerns, with more stops bringing more possible exposure to other animals from different herds. Others pointed to the additional stress of frequent loading and unloading.
The sector also argued that the federal regulations were unveiled without waiting for the results of the three-year study, which the federal government helped bankroll. The joint venture between the Beef Cattle Research Council, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the universities of Calgary and Guelph, is expected to publish its full findings next year.
Last year, the study’s initial findings seemed to fuel the beef sector’s arguments. While short trips were, perhaps unsurprisingly, easier on cattle, in a comparison of 320 steer calves (transported for either 12 or 36 hours, followed by a rest of zero, four, eight or 12 hours and then another four hours on the road), researchers found no clear advantage to rest stops. Animals were assessed for things like injury, fatigue, dehydration or immune response before, during and after transport. Weight gain in more rested animals, likewise, was attributed to gut fill since the gain disappeared within seven hours of reaching their destination.
The following year covered some gaps identified in year one, namely that the tested calves in the first year were preconditioned to feedlot conditions and bunk feeding.
Year two took another 320 commercial steers, drawn from a single ranch. Half were prepared well ahead of transport (weaned, vaccinated, treated for parasites and spent three weeks on a backgrounding diet), while the other half were freshly weaned before getting in the trailer. Groups were then further split, with half spending a day at auction while half were taken directly from the farm.
All calves were then transported 36 hours, four hours shy of their destination, and either given an eight-hour break, or reloaded to continue on without rest.
At each interval, researchers took weight and temperature readings, blood tests for signs of stress and made notes on behaviour. Readings were repeated periodically for about a month afterwards.
The study found little difference between whether a calf was coming from the farm or the auction (although researchers did ultimately suggest that feed and water provided at the auction might have bolstered calves, and suggested that might be a good management strategy for auction marts to avoid transport stress).
Preconditioning, however, came with noticeable improvements. The study found that preconditioned calves had better feeding habits, less stress and better growth. Their immune systems functioned better, and calves were less lethargic.
“I’m sure that we’ll take input from some of the experts who were involved in the study in how this can be implemented in the industry,” Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Carson Callum said.
He added, however, that even outcomes that were earmarked as significant “didn’t really vary that much” and calf energy recovered quickly across the board.
“We need to continue looking at the data and at some of the ongoing studies that are happening to ensure that whatever is recommended for industry is accurate and is considering all things related to animal welfare,” he said. “That’s really the most important thing.”
In a repeat of the first year’s findings, the study found little measurable benefit to rest stops.
“For example, after the final unloading at the research feedlot, the calves that had a rest stop were less alert and more sluggish than the unrested calves,” Bergen said in a March 2021 article in Canadian Cattlemen magazine. “Unrested calves also spent more time standing on the day they arrived at the research feedlot. Was the rest stop actually restful, or did it make them more restless?”
Researchers suggested that the lack of differences might have to do with animals lying down during transport. At the same time, the study said, four hours in the final stretch likely wasn’t long enough for differences between rested and unrested groups, and future study should take a harder look at animals that spend longer on the road.
Likewise, the study suggested that future researchers add in cattle that are commingled or lack feed and water at auction.
“I think it continues to reinforce what we already have been saying,” Callum said.
The regulations are of particular interest to Manitoba, given where it sits in relation to its markets.
“Whether that’s east, west or south, (cattle) do go those directions and some of those distances are pretty long, so it could have implications for some of our markets once these regulations are fully into force after the transitionary period,” Callum said. “And that’s why we need to continue to have these discussions with the right science to potentially drive some adjustments to them.”
The industry is also adapting, should regulations remain as they are, he added.
Callum pointed to the increasing number of rest stops cropping up across the country. In particular, he noted new facilities at Kapuskasing, in northern Ontario.