A prominent animal welfare group calls it “transport torture,” but a new study has found conditions inside livestock trailers don’t normally have a significant impact on animal health.
The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study looked at trailer microclimates during cattle transport.
“We thought they might have an impact on the health and morbidity rates once they got put in place at the feedlot,” said Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, a senior researcher at the Lethbridge Research Station.
“(But) no matter what the microclimate was inside the trailer — whether it was hotter than outside or colder than outside — those factors did not seem to affect the morbidity of the calves.”
That runs counter to charges levelled by Mercy for Animals, which has garnered 100,000 signatures since October on an online petition calling on Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to overhaul “Canada’s woefully lacking transport regulations.”
The group launched the petition in the wake of an undercover video that showed sick and injured hogs arriving at Red Deer’s Western Hog Exchange, where they were then dragged, kicked, and hit with a plastic bat.
“Transport trucks are not adequately enclosed or climate controlled,” states Mercy for Animals website. “During the summer, temperatures inside trucks can reach well over 40 C, particularly when at a standstill. This can lead to heat stress and heart attacks; combined with high ammonia levels, it can cause death by suffocation. During the winter, exposure to snow, frigid winds, freezing temperatures, and extreme wind chill can cause animals to become frozen to the floor or sides of the trailer and possibly freeze to death.”
Schwartzkopf-Genswein’s study looked at the shipping of calves. While it found transport times, loading density, and outside temperature can affect the conditions inside a transport trailer “quite drastically,” the researchers didn’t find any major effect on the calves themselves.
The first part of the study looked at 24 loads of calves, with loads divided into two groups based on the amount of space given to the calves. In six of the loads, the researchers also put sensors in the trailers to measure temperature and humidity and took blood samples from the calves to measure stress hormone levels and dehydration.
Loading density did impact levels of dehydration in the calves, but the researchers did not find increased morbidity (incidence of sickness).
The results were similar in a study of feeder cattle, said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
“We didn’t see much effect on the cattle in their condition at the time of off-loading.”
Feeder cattle are generally overloaded between five to 10 per cent above the recommendations, she said, but even in those circumstances, the research didn’t show “any really negative effects.”
The study, however, comes with a caveat.
Because the sample size was so small, the results need to be “viewed with caution,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein, adding further studies with more cattle are needed to confirm the findings.
As well, the loads of cattle that were studied weren’t in transport for as long as the rules allowed, which is 52 hours for cows and other ruminants. (For hogs and other monogastric animals, the limit is 36 hours.) The calves that were studied were transported for 12 hours or less, while the cattle were in trailers for no more than 22.5 hours.
“We did not set specific times within the study as we were tracking commercial loads of cattle and followed them regardless of their transport time,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
Mercy for Animals wants the maximum to be eight hours before animals are given food, water, and rest, saying anything short of that amounts to cruelty.
“Increased time on the truck can result in greater shrink, (and more) downer and lame cattle regardless of animal type,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “Of course, more vulnerable animals like cull cows and calves are more affected than fats, and particularly when the temperatures were below -15 C and above 30 C.”
Still, her study doesn’t support the contention that any more than eight hours in transport is cruel.
“The industry is pretty good at figuring out what works for the cattle,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “From what I’ve seen, at least with the calves and the feeders, it seems that we don’t have any major problems.”
But it may be a different situation for cull cows, she added.
“Animals that are in good condition — that are fit for travel, that are ready for the trip — can manage it. Fat cattle have few problems managing the conditions of our transport,” she said.
“Once you get to smaller calves and cull cows, I do think some of the conditions in which they’re transported are more taxing for them.”
Producers need to focus on “taking care when putting the right kinds of animals on the trailer,” she said.
“If you know they’re compromised in any way, take the proper precautions — keep them off the trailer, keep them segregated, give them more bedding, give them more space.”
And while Schwartzkopf-Genswein is “waiting with bated breath” for new transport regulations that have been almost 15 years in the making, she said she hopes new regulations reflect scientific knowledge rather than pressure from special interest groups.
“If there are welfare issues, absolutely,” she said. “I think we’re all on the same page in that we want good welfare for our cattle, but likewise, we also don’t want to impede commerce where there really are no problems.”