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Making the best of a bad situation

Beef 911: If you plan ahead, you can still get good value for an animal that suddenly needs to be put down

All producers run into the need for emergency slaughter of their livestock from time to time. With a co-ordinated effort between producers, abattoirs, and veterinarians we can realize good value and prevent the waste of good meat protein.

It is important to preplan the chain of events that would happen in the event of emergency slaughter being necessary. This can happen with all production farm animals but my examples will focus on cattle and it will pertain to the rules currently in force in Alberta. (Bear in mind provincial rules, when it comes to ante-mortem inspection, could vary slightly depending on the specific provincial regulations.)

Emergency slaughter is often a viable solution when a bull breaks a leg or becomes a downer because of a back injury; a severely lame animal such as a stifle injury that can’t be transported; or even when dealing with severely fractious or unmanageable mature animals. In most cases, these animals still have value, plus there is the need to end animal suffering as quickly as possible.

They are called emergencies for a reason because like with a downer, there may be pain and with time, muscle damage and trimming losses are increased the more an animal is down. Once the decision is made to butcher these animals and it is clear there are no drug residues, then the path is fairly clear on what to do.

Producers can always butcher for their own use and there are many on-farm mobile butchers who can facilitate this. However, if during the butchering process you or the mobile butcher sees some type of pathology that causes concern, veterinarians can check tissues and, if in doubt, send tissues away or possibly even check meat for edibility.

Over the years many a farm butcher, mobile butcher, or hunter, for that matter, have brought specimens in to be checked. Better safe than sorry — especially when all the meat in the carcass is going to be used for your family’s consumption.

You will need to find out if this is a service your local production animal veterinarian wants to provide. I suggest bringing in the fresh specimen. Putting it on ice in a sealed container for transport to the clinic works well. We must always keep biosecurity in mind.

Beyond the local butcher there is a way to get the meat inspected so it could be sold.

This involves co-operation between the owner, producer, auction market operator, or custom feedlot plus the veterinarian and the provincially accredited processing facility.

A veterinarian in Alberta has to undergo a course to become an appointed inspector by Alberta Agriculture. This allows them to become familiar with everything from specified risk materials and the aging of cattle by teeth to which lymph nodes etc. are checked on the inspection floor. Veterinarians are then qualified to do an ante-mortem inspection that is a health check before death.

The animal can then be humanely put down (by gunshot or captive bolt) by the inspector and bled out. It can then be loaded and taken to a provincial plant where it can be further inspected and processed.

Some provincial plants only have inspectors on site certain days, so this needs to be checked out and verified. You need to ensure there is enough time allotted. If this is all done correctly and the necessary paperwork filled out (which isn’t onerous), the meat can be sold. After bleeding (depending on ambient temperature), they like the carcass delivered preferably within an hour to two. This may vary according to province and temperature when done. There may be some leniency for unexpected delays but the idea is to get the carcass in as quickly as possible for gutting, skinning, and chilling. This is all in the interest of better meat quality and minimal contamination.

I know this seems like a lot of effort but with good communication between the plant and the veterinary inspector, most times high-quality beef is available for sale.

Like anything, the first time takes the most time in co-ordination. In my experience, the majority of these cases occur at auction markets; during processing or loading cattle; and when bulls are turned out to pasture and fighting occurs. If these slaughter services are available they can be used. I know of instances where once the meat is inspected it may be offered to employees, donated to a food bank, or the plant may buy it. The choice will be yours.

One large-animal veterinary clinic in Ontario has taken this service to the ultimate degree.

It has veterinarians certified to do the ante-mortem inspection and the clinic provides the transportation in special trucks right to the plant (and can do the inspection once at the plant, if no inspectors are on that day).

This is an excellent service and they should be commended for their efforts. The service is widely used because it is available and the economic decision of the worthiness of the carcass is made on site. The veterinarian does the inspection to the level he/she has to in order to ensure the beef is edible. This includes body temperature and anything else necessary, even various neurologic exams. Whatever is deemed necessary for that individual case is done, and then it is further followed up at the plant.

With transport regulations also becoming harsher, we can definitely make it easier on these non-resolvable lame cattle by using the emergency slaughter route. In many situations, the appointment can be booked and the plant informed, so this is not always an absolute emergency. In other cases, painkillers (with short withdrawal times) can be prescribed if it is necessary to wait a few days.

If you want this type of service, seek out a veterinarian who is already certified or encourage the ones you use to become certified. The local plant may get more business and you have salvaged some good-quality beef — so it is a win-win-win situation for all concerned.

We all need to evaluate every emergency slaughter case to prevent other similar ones, but sometimes accidents or fluky events cannot be predicted. I hope this article gets some veterinarians interested in providing this service, and producers to be proactive and create a plan in the event an emergency slaughter situation comes along.

I realize some producers are far from provincial-type plants but they still have the option of keeping the meat for themselves and salvaging some value out of unfortunate events.

About the author

Contributor

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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