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Strike Three? Transport Rest Stops Still Don’t Show a Benefit for Weaned Calves

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

beef cattle transport trucks take rest stop

In 2017, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency released draft transport regulations requiring that all cattle receive a minimum eight-hour feed, water and rest break after a maximum 36 hours in transit. Because there was no relevant science to support this decision, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the BCRC funded a Beef Cluster project to determine whether feed, water and rest stops during long distance transport improve calf health and welfare outcomes.

This project was led by led by Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein and Daniela Melendez of AAFC Lethbridge. Their third and final study (“Effect of rest, post-rest transport duration and conditioning on performance, behavioral, and physiological welfare indicators of beef calves”) should be published in PLOS One in the coming months.

What They Did

In the fall of 2020, 328 commercial steer calves (523 lbs) were split into two equal groups. One group was preconditioned (weaned, vaccinated, given antibiotic and parasite treatments, and adapted to a backgrounding diet three weeks before the transportation study started). The other half were not weaned until the study started. Both groups of calves were then transported for 20 hours. After this, half (82) of the preconditioned and half (82) of nonpreconditioned calves were unloaded and rested for eight hours before being reloaded and travelling another four or 15 hours. The remaining calves were unloaded, sampled, immediately reloaded and travelled the final four or 15 hours of their journey without a rest. These trips approximate the travel times from Lethbridge to Thunder Bay (20 hours), where cattle rest stations are located, and from Thunder Bay to London or Kincardine (15 hours). The non-preconditioned calves were vaccinated and given antibiotic and parasite treatments after the final trip.

The research team left no stone unturned looking for impacts of preconditioning, transport time and rest stops on calf health and welfare. At 10 different time points before, during and after transportation they collected individual calf weights, temperatures, blood samples to measure physiological indicators of stress, fatigue, dehydration, energy reserves, muscle damage, physical trauma, infection, inflammation, immune status and flight speed each time the animal left the chute. Standing and lying behavior was recorded throughout transportation, during the rest stop and for the first few days after transport. They measured calf alertness and lameness at each unloading point. They continuously recorded six measures of individual feeding behavior at the rest stop and for the first 28 days in the feedlot. Feed intake, average daily gain and feed:gain were measured, as well as health treatments. They measured a lot of things, a lot of times on a lot of calves.

What They Learned

cattle feedlot trucks and transport rest stops for calves

This study mirrored the results of their two previous studies. Trip length and preconditioning affected animal outcomes, but providing a rest stop during long distance transport did not clearly benefit calf health or welfare.

Trip length: Calves that travelled shorter distances generally had lower levels of fat breakdown in transit and higher feed intake during the first month in the feedlot than calves that travelled farther.

Preconditioned calves showed fewer signs of fat breakdown, infection, inflammation, trauma and muscle damage than nonpreconditioned calves. Dehydration didn’t differ between preconditioned and nonpreconditioned calves. Cortisol (stress) levels and flight speeds were unexpectedly higher in the preconditioned than nonpreconditioned calves.

Preconditioned calves had more gut fill, so shrank more during transport than newly weaned, nonpreconditioned calves did. Preconditioned calves were familiar with the feedlot diet, so they ate more during the first month in the feedlot. In contrast, the newly weaned nonpreconditioned calves exhibited compensatory gain, grew faster and more efficiently than the preconditioned calves.

During the rest stop, 95% of preconditioned calves approached the Growsafe bunk at some point, while only 15% of the nonpreconditioned calves visited. Assuming the Growsafe system was working correctly, this suggests the nonpreconditioned calves didn’t find the feed. In that case, the rest stop simply prolonged the number of hours the nonpreconditioned calves were off feed by eight hours.

Alertness, lameness, and sickness after transport: Most calves were alert and walked normally regardless of whether they were preconditioned or not, how far they travelled, or whether they had been rested or not. No calves died during the first month on feed, but a total of 25 (7.5%) were treated for respiratory disease. This number was too small to analyze statistically, but treatment rates were numerically higher for preconditioned than nonpreconditioned calves, higher for calves travelling short than long distances and twice as high in rested than in unrested calves.

So What Does This Mean… to You?

Weaned calves that start a long trip in good condition likely won’t benefit from a rest stop. Cull cows are older, often weaker, recognize feed bunks and waterbowls and may benefit more from rest stops (and shorter trips). The CFIA is aware of these results. We expect they will consider animal outcomes when enforcing the transport regulations.

Commercial transporters and producers are both impacted by these regulations. Additional paperwork is required for producers who haul their own cattle (e.g., to auction marts, abattoirs, etc.). Find information on the updated transport livestock regulations and what you need to know at www.beefresearch.ca.

The Beef Cattle Research Council is funded by the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off. The BCRC partners with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, provincial beef industry groups and governments to advance research and technology transfer supporting the Canadian beef industry’s vision to be recognized as a preferred supplier of healthy, high-quality beef, cattle and genetics.

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