On the Road Again

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Retrieved: July 27, 2021, 11:00 pm

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced significant changes to Canada’s livestock transportation regulations in 2019. Previously, truckers could haul cattle for 48 hours before a mandatory five-hour feed, water and rest stop (unless they were within four hours of their final destination). The new regulations require an eight-hour feed, water and rest stop after 36 hours, with no four-hour grace period. The new regulations could have benefitted from some meaningful science.

Research that could have helped inform these regulations has been underway since 2018. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein and Daniela Melendez Suarez of Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge Research Station are leading a major study to determine whether feed, water and rest stops provide measurable benefits to feeder cattle during long-distance transport. The January 2020 research column described their first experiment, which found that rest stops didn’t clearly benefit preconditioned cattle. Their second experiment is now published (Effects of conditioning, source and rest on indicators of stress in beef cattle transported by road; doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244854).

What They Did: 320 commercial steer calves (540 lbs) from one ranch were split into two groups. Half of them were weaned, vaccinated, given antibiotic treatment and parasite treatments and adapted to a backgrounding diet three weeks before the study started. The other 160 calves were not weaned until the transportation study started. These preconditioned and non-preconditioned groups were then split into two subgroups of 80 calves. One subgroup went to an auction mart overnight (with feed and water) and ran through the ring the next day. The “ranch direct” subgroup did not. Then commercial truckers hauled all the calves for 36 hours and unloaded them. At this point, half the calves were immediately reloaded and hauled for another four hours. The other half without rest were rested for eight hours, then reloaded and hauled the last four hours to the research feedlot.

Individual weights, rectal temperatures, blood samples and behavior measurements were collected before the initial loading, when they were unloaded after 36 hours, at the end of the rest period, after the final unloading, and 1, 2, 3, 5, 14 and 28 days after the transport ended. Blood samples were analyzed for physiological signs of stress, muscle damage and fatigue, dehydration, energy deficit, inflammation, trauma, infection, and immune responsiveness. Animal health and performance was tracked for four weeks.

What They Learned: The results were highly complicated, because they measured a lot of things, and how a group of calves responded to transport or a rest stop depended on whether they had been preconditioned or not, as well as whether they had come directly from the ranch or through an auction mart. But here are the high-level results.

Ranch Direct vs. Auction Mart didn’t affect animal physiology, behavior, feed intake, growth or health in any meaningful way. Your results may vary! Unlike most calves arriving at commercial feedlots, the calves in this study were not comingled with calves from other ranches at the auction mart or during transport. This auction mart also provided feed and water, which may not always be the case.

Preconditioning vs. freshly weaned: Preconditioned calves were measurably more alert, more active, spent more time feeding, and had lower physiological measures of stress, muscle damage, fat breakdown, trauma, inflammation, had better immune function, ate more and grew better than non-preconditioned calves. Preconditioning did not affect treatment or death rates, possibly because all the calves originated from the same ranch.

Rest stops provided no clear benefits. 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. 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?

For every other measurement, the effects of the rest stop mainly depended on whether the calves had been preconditioned or not. For example, the energy status of all groups of calves was the same after the first 36 hours of transport. But at the end of the rest stop, the non-preconditioned calves had a significantly lower energy status than the preconditioned calves. Feed intake measurements indicated that the non-preconditioned calves ate less during the rest stop than the preconditioned calves did, particularly early in the rest stop. This may explain why the energy status of the non-preconditioned calves continued to worsen during the rest stop. Regardless, all groups of calves had recovered their energy status within a day after their final unloading at the research feedlot, and there were no differences in treatment or death rates associated with rest stops.

So What … Does This Mean to Me? Rest stops did not provide any clear, across-the-board benefits for all groups of calves and might pose extra challenges to non-preconditioned calves. The team is currently studying whether an eight-hour rest after 36 hours benefits calves that travel another 12 hours to their final destination.

Preconditioning helped calves travel better. The BCRC has a calculator to help you decide whether preconditioning makes economic sense in your situation (www.beefresearch.ca/preconditioning/).

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7 thoughts on “On the Road Again

  1. So, here’s a question, if there was no definitive research in the first place, why were the regulations changed? Seems to me, the townies are placing pressure on politicians for more ‘feel good’ measures that are just going to make farmers lives more difficult for no measurable benefit.

  2. RE: “This auction mart also provided feed and water, which may not always be the case.” I’m a little ignorant. Why wouldn’t an auction mart provide feed and water?

    Also, one of your posts says this: “Calves shipped to the auction mart or feedlot immediately after weaning are stressed by separation from their mothers, transportation, co-mingling with unfamiliar calves, disease challenges, variable fall weather, and adjustment to unfamiliar feed, water and facilities. Each of these stresses can suppress the immune system and make freshly weaned calves more susceptible to bovine respiratory disease. Their impacts are worse when they all come at the same time.”

    My questions are these:
    1. Why not require preconditioning if it is helpful to healthy calves, reducing stress, etc.?
    2. Why not require feed lots to provide feed and water prior to shipping.
    3. Why should cattle be transported for such a long distance alive? Why not slaughter them nearer to home and then ship sides of beef or cuts?

    It seems to me that some of this could be gov’t regulators’ work (such as encouraging more local (without x numbers of hours travel). Other things like mandatory preconditioning could be part of a Beef Producers’ Code of Ethics.

  3. Hi Blair

    According to the CFIA “the amendments are the product of extensive consultations with farm groups, transporters, members of the public and interested groups, which resulted in an unprecedented number of responses to the CFIA’s proposals (more than 51,000 submissions). They also take into account the latest research on animal transportation and international standards. By establishing clear and science-informed requirements, the regulations better reflect the needs of animals and improve overall animal welfare in Canada.”

    The CFIA has informed industry that they are always monitoring and considering new research, and that amendments to the regulations are possible if new research provides evidence that changes are needed.


  4. Hi Curt

    1. Preconditioning is a recommended practice in Canada’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle (https://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/beef-cattle).
    The Code was developed by producers, researchers and regulators, and lays out the beef industry’s expectations about how cattle should be managed to ensure they are well cared for throughout their lives.

    2. That’s built in to the transport regulations.
    Transport time doesn’t start when the truck starts moving. Transport time starts once feed and water is removed. So if the cattle are taken off feed and water 5 hours before they’re loaded, that’s 5 fewer hours until they need to stop for feed, water and rest.

    3. Feedlot cattle usually are slaughtered pretty close to home.
    Feedlots are usually found where the weather is suitable and feed is abundant, and packing plants are usually built where a lot of fed cattle and labor are available to keep the plant operating. So it’s pretty unusual for fed cattle to be transported long distances for slaughter, and usually only happens when supply and demand are out of whack.


  5. Hi Reynold,
    We run a large cow/calf operation and we don’t know anyone in industry who was ‘consulted’. I know when some bureaucrat is blowing cow patties and how these ‘consultations’ work. How about you explain this study where there appears to be little difference or better yet, how about you produce the studies used to come to these new regulations. I follow the science and producer’s experience and don’t give a tinkers damn about public,animal advocacy groups,law groups or others ‘opinions’. They are immaterial and generally counter-productive to how we run our operation because of all the mis-information deliberately sown to confuse people.

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