Beef Issues Quarterly Archive

Q & A with Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein on Transportation Quality Assurance

by Jason Ahola, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Beef Production Systems, Colorado State University


Animal welfare is an important component of beef production and is constantly monitored and measured throughout the beef lifecycle. One aspect of animal welfare for producers is the care of livestock between ranches, feedyards, working facilities and, ultimately, the slaughter plant. Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, Agri-Food Canada researcher, gives insight to the importance of transportation quality assurance on the well-being of cattle.

Beef Issues Quarterly (BIQ): Why is the transportation of cattle so important to the beef industry?

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein (KSG): Beef cattle in North American are transported by road at least once, and up to five or more times during their life. This includes transportation from their ranch of origin to auctions or feedlots, and finally to processing plants for slaughter. Since 2005 there has been a trend towards the establishment of fewer but larger growing/finishing and slaughter facilities which means that transport distances get longer. In addition to that, buying or selling cattle at lower or higher prices in distant markets is common but also increases the number of times and the distance cattle are transported. So, all of this “commerce” makes cattle transport trucks highly visible to the North American public and may be the only contact many people have with livestock production today. At the same time, public and industry concern for animal welfare, food safety, meat and carcass quality are at an all-time high. Transport can have a large impact on all of these factors and if managed poorly can have very negative effects on production, social licence and market access.

BIQ: How has stress associated with transporting cattle been evaluated or documented?

KSG: Stress is a behavioral or physiological response to a real or perceived stressor. There are two main ways that we can assess stress in relationship to transport. One way is to do small studies in which we are able to collect detailed physiological and behavioral samples from individual cattle before, during, and after they are transported. The samples we collect include things like blood where we can measure levels of a stress hormone (cortisol), their level of hydration, and their immune function such as white blood cell count (we know that there is a strong relationship between stress and animal health) and also the amount of weight they lose (shrink) during transport. We can also monitor things like their heart rate and body temperature. In terms of behavior, we can assess how much time they spend ruminating, standing, lying and walking before and after transport was well as how much feed and water they consume. Panting may be an indicator of heat stress while a locomotion or gait score can tell us if they have incurred any leg or foot injuries during the transport process. The main thing we look for in these studies is a change from “normal”, which is why we take measurements before during and after so we can see how these change over time. The other way is to conduct a survey or benchmark type study where we document welfare outcomes using a large number of cattle. We can quantify things like the number of mortalities, injuries, and downer cattle by load and look at the relationship between those welfare factors and things like the distance they were shipped, what density they were loaded at, what environmental conditions were like, and what compartments within the trailer they were loaded in. 

BIQ: What considerations should cattle producers make before deciding whether to load and transport cattle, or an individual animal?

KSG: The two main considerations here are the animal’s fitness for travel and conditions of transport. In terms of cattle fitness, there are many conditions that make an animal unsuitable to load, these include but are not limited to: if the animal is unable to stand on its own, has a fractured limb or pelvis, has a ruptured pre-pubic tendon, has a body condition score of one, has a fever, is likely to give birth or has a prolapsed uterus. In terms of transport conditions, these would include but not be limited to: transport in extreme heat or cold, during a storm, during poor road conditions with potential for road closures or any conditions which could result in lengthy increases in the time animals need to spend in transport under adverse environmental conditions.  

BIQ: Are there strategies or procedures that producers can use to mitigate stress or risks associated with transport?

KSG: Based on my research to date, I have made a list of practices producers should take into consideration:

  • Cull cows have the greatest probability of poor welfare outcomes and should be transported with caution and care.
  • More welfare issues occur when transport exceeds 30 hours, so efforts should be made to keep total transport time below this time point.
  • Longer journeys at higher temperatures increase shrink and poor welfare outcomes so reducing long hauls under extreme environmental condition would reduce the risk of poor welfare.
  • Cull cows and calves have an increased chance of being under-loaded in the doghouse and nose compartments thereby increasing injury. So, care and attention to loading densities in these compartments should be made.
  • Cattle shipped at loading densities lower than 0.5, or greater than 1.5 m2/animal, are more likely to die, become non-ambulatory, or lame so loading densities should be kept in between these two points.
  • Even the best transporters and conditions cannot compensate for poor loading decisions (as discussed for unfit animals described above).

BIQ: What regulations are in place in Canada and/or the U.S. regarding transportation of cattle, including a few basic definitions?

KSG: The transport of animals is the most frequently regulated aspect of animal production. Regulations for travel times and distances for cattle in North America are less stringent than those of other countries in the EU as well as Australia and New Zealand. In Canada, the maximum transport time is 52 hours before cattle must reach their final destination. In the U.S., cattle can be in transport up to 28 hours according to the 28 Hour Law, but to my knowledge it is rarely enforced. The regulated transport durations used currently in North America are drastically different from those of the EU, which state a maximum eight hour journey time, but also indicate that with special provisions for food, water and rest, transport duration can be up to 14 hours, with a maximum trip length of 30 hours. Currently, there are no regulations on rest stops for the US, but Canada requires that animals be offloaded for a minimum period of five hours after 48 hours of transport (unless they can reach their final destination within 52 hours). Canada also has laws – the Health of Animals Regulations which dictates that food animals should be handled in a way that avoids distress or pain. These laws also specify the segregation of incompatible animals, the provision of food and water, mandatory rest intervals during transport and special rules pertaining to the transport of unfit (e.g. downer animals), young or pregnant animals. In addition, the use of bedding is a regulatory requirement in Canada on journeys longer than 12 hours. The U.S. does not have similar laws governing transport. Instead, they rely on voluntary compliance to industry codes of practice that serve as guidelines for best management practices. The Canadian Transport Regulations are currently being updated and new regulations are to be released sometime in 2016.

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Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Questions and Answers, Summer 2015

June 16, 2015