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Q&A on the Science that Informed a Renewed Beef Code

Following an extensive process that began in 2010, the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle is now available. The Beef Code is an important tool for the Canadian beef cattle industry to educate producers and to support the industry when challenged by animal care concerns. The previous edition of the Beef Code was published in 1991.

The renewal process was led by National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) and followed the NFACC code development process set out for the different species of farmed animals.

The Beef Code Development Committee members offered a diversity of experience, interests and geographical representation to ensure a robust drafting process that would ultimately lead to a Code of sound animal care grounded in practicality, economics, public concerns and science.

Code Development Committee members represented nearly all of the groups that form that NFACC, including the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, animal welfare organizations, animal welfare regulatory enforcement, provincial and federal governments, veterinarians, beef processors, researchers, and transporters. The Code Development Committee also included cattle producers from different regions of Canada and from the different sectors of cattle production.

A Scientific Committee is an important part of NFACC’s code development process. The Scientific Committee for the beef code developed a report on the results of research relating to key animal welfare issues. The scientific report was used by the Code Development Committee to ensure the Code was informed by relevant science.

In addition to the expertise of the Code Development Committee and the Scientific Committee, a public comment period that spanned two months in early 2013 collected more than 400 comments on a proposed draft of the Code. Feedback highlighted areas for improvement, and reinforced much of the code as drafted.

In order to learn more about the science that informed the renewed Beef Code, contacted the following committee members:

  • Stookey, Joseph – Co-Chair of the Scientific Committee and member of the Code Development Committee. Dr. Joseph Stookey is a researcher of animal behaviour and cattle handling at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Schwartzkopf-Genswein, Karen – Co-Chair of the Scientific Committee and member of the Code Development Committee. Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein is a researcher focused on cattle transport and welfare issues at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Lethbridge research centre.
  • McKillop, Ian – member of the Code Development committee. Ian McKillop is a cow-calf producer in Ontario.
  • Campbell, John – member of the Code Development and Scientific committees. Dr. John Campbell is a bovine veterinarian and researcher of beef cattle disease at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Lee, Ryder – technical expertise to the Code Development committee. Ryder Lee is the Manager of Federal and Provincial Relations at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and staff support on the CCA Animal Care committee.

Why is it important to have an up-to-date Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle for Canada’s beef cattle industry?

Stookey: Since the publication of the Beef Code in 1991, the general public has shown increased interest in knowing the source, health and welfare of the animals that are being consumed. Today, nearly every major food outlet, grocery chain and slaughter facility has an animal welfare statement and management practices in place for insuring high animal welfare and health standards are being met.

Likewise, producers, ranchers, feedlot operators and transporters of beef cattle are committed to ensuring cattle are produced and managed in a manner that provides proper care and handling of the animals throughout their lives. This is made possible by the use of proven management practices that are grounded in science and through the use of Canada-wide recommendations that are part of the Codes of Practice.

The new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle is just one more tool available to producers to insure animal welfare standards and production practices are current with the science and societal expectations.

What was the role of the Scientific Committee in the renewal of the Beef Code?

Stookey: The Scientific Committee was formed to review the most recent and relevant scientific publications, written to date, on the care and rearing of beef cattle. The review was focused specifically on key welfare issues, as identified in advance by the Scientist’s Committee and the Code Development Committee. These areas included a look at all the science published on routine painful procedures performed on beef cattle (dehorning, castration and branding), feedlot health and morbidity (bovine respiratory disease, lameness and nutritional diseases), weaning methods and environmental and housing conditions for beef cattle (effect of mud, cold and heat on health and welfare). The science report then served as a reference point for discussion, clarification, and help in decisions and drafting of the code that dealt specifically with these areas. Ultimately the scientific committee helped provide information and assurance that the Code was developed from a science-based approach.

One notable change in the renewed code are requirements related to the timing of castration and dehorning of cattle, as well as managing related pain in older animals. How has scientific knowledge of pain in livestock changed since 1991?

Schwartzkopf-Genswein: The science report leading up to the development of the new Code included over 60 references to scientific publications since 1991, that were specific to the topics of dehorning, castration and branding in cattle. Countless additional scientific papers on pain research in cattle were reviewed for consideration. The knowledge of pain in livestock has advanced steadily over the last 22 years, with the development of both behavioural and physiological assessment methods including our ability to measure the responses associated with these methods more accurately. Scientific study has led to the availability of new analgesics and anesthetics that are registered for use in cattle.  And the science helps to provide us with a starting point from which we can better understand the mechanisms of how these agents can mitigate pain related to various painful procedures. For example, we know that the strategy for alleviating pain caused by dehorning differs from the approach we will need to follow in order to mitigate the pain associated with castration. It is very clear that over the last 20  years we have gained significant knowledge on the appropriate dosage, routes of administration and synergy between anesthetics and analgesics. Nevertheless, there is still an opportunity and need for more scientific scrutiny as new pain mitigation products become available.

Is more research needed to study painful procedures in beef cattle?

Schwartzkopf-Genswein: Yes, although there have been some advances in understanding pain in cattle there is still much we do not understand when it comes to the effect and management of pain associated with such procedures as castration and dehorning. For example, there is little published scientific information on the effect of dehorning on beef cattle although much work in this area has been done with dairy cattle. It is important to note that beef cattle may respond differently to dehorning than dairy cattle due to their fear response to handling and restraint. Consequently, determining the effects of analgesia and anesthesia applied at varying ages would still be highly beneficial to the beef industry.

In addition, there is currently not enough scientific evidence to conclude that one method of castration is better than the other and further research would help to answer this question. Continued research on practical methods of mitigating pain and encouraging wound healing associated with castration are warranted. Finally, research to examine the effects of castration at various ages is lacking, especially research at very young ages.

Editor’s note: A study of the effect of age and handling of beef cattle on pain, as well as pain mitigation during routine management procedures, is part of the Beef Science Cluster under Growing Forward 2. Results are expected in 2018.

Are the scientifically-informed requirements and recommendations practical for Canadian cattle producers?

McKillop: When looking at changes to the new code, three of the key elements that the committee looked at were that the code:

  • must be based on science,
  • must be practical to implement for producers from all areas of Canada, regardless of their production practices, and
  • should demonstrate an improvement in animal welfare.

The committee spent a great deal of time, especially on the areas of castration and dehorning. The science is very clear that castration and dehorning are painful procedures and by using pain mitigation techniques, the welfare of beef cattle in Canada will be improved.

The requirements were developed so that they could be implemented with a minimum amount of change in production practices on the vast majority of beef operations in Canada. If producers do need to change production practices, both animal welfare and animal performance will be improved and there will be economic benefit with that.

The committee strove to focus on outcomes as well as to offer several ways for producers to meet requirements and recommendations. For example, with dehorning, producers have the option of disbudding early, wait and use pain control, or transition to polled genetics. As well, with both castration and dehorning, there is a phase in period for the requirements. This phase in period will give producers the opportunity to talk to their veterinarian and make the necessary adjustments that are needed to meet the requirements.

What does research show about the relation between good animal care and the performance of the animals or production economics?

Campbell: There are a numerous examples where we can show a direct relationship between good animal care and the performance of the animals. There is lots of strong scientific data on a number of topics such as the impact of lameness or respiratory disease on productivity. The impact of poor body condition on reproductive performance has also been demonstrated to have a dramatic impact on the economic profitability of a cow-calf herd. However, there are also a few examples where the benefits of procedures like pain control are not perhaps always obvious from an economic point of view. Some of those may need further research to demonstrate the benefits that exist, and occasionally we may not be able to show a dramatic economic benefit, but it may still be the right thing to do from an animal welfare point of view.

The code states that some surgical procedures can be done by “qualified trained personnel”. What should producers do to be confident that these procedures are done properly?

Campbell: The code has a number of references to the importance of establishing an ongoing relationship with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can provide you with the most up-to-date recommendations on how to properly perform these procedures and can help you assess the need for and benefits of pain control and other treatments.

What do you anticipate for the future of the Beef Code?

Lee: Rewriting the Code is just one step in the lifecycle of the Code. Next is building awareness and understanding of the content. Provincial cattle associations along with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) will be distributing and promoting the renewed Code of Practice at every opportunity. Talking about animal care is not new but the renewed Code gives a solid jumping off point to continue the task of ensuring beef cattle are well cared for from birth to the end of their lives.

CCA has also applied to Growing Forward 2 to expand the Verified Beef Production,  the Canadian beef cattle On Farm Food Safety program, to include an animal welfare module. Adding modules to this program will help producers to show the marketplace the things they are doing to sustainably produce safe, nutritious beef from well cared for cattle.

At the same time, the Beef Science Cluster 2 is funding several research projects looking at animal health and welfare. This and other science will inform future reviews and renewals of the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle.

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