Animal welfare survived BSE crisis, statistics show

BSE’s darkest days | Welfare of older cows was at risk following BSE crisis but record was good

SASKATOON — Cow welfare held up surprisingly well during the dark days of Canada’s BSE crisis, according to data collected by the cattle industry.

Market prices plummeted when the border closed to all Canadian cattle after an Alberta cow was found to have BSE. Four months later, the U.S. border re-opened to boneless young beef, but prices for cows were so low that producers kept them on the farm.

Industry officials worried about the older cows’ ability to withstand transport when it came time to market these older animals.

Reynold Bergen, science director for the Beef Cattle Research Council, said statistics show that transport-related animal condemnations never exceeded the pre-BSE number during the post-BSE cow marketing period of 2003-09.

“The prevalence of negative transport outcomes did not increase for Canadian cattle, even when economics were extremely challenging,” Bergen told the recent International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare.

He attributed some of that success to a concentrated communication program that urged producers not to ship old, thin and weak animals.

“Don’t do anything that you’re not willing to explain on the national news and always act like somebody might be watching because they could be,” Bergen said. “That message really resonated with a lot of producers.”

He said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency kept producers informed about laws surrounding animal welfare. It also operated its BSE surveillance program and was alert to unfit animals.

At about the same time, the cattle industry developed the Certified Livestock Transport program to train livestock truck drivers, while packers strictly enforced truck load limits and arrival times.

Packers and auction markets deducted money for animals that were condemned upon arrival or had to be destroyed and disposed of after getting to auction.

That discouraged many producers from shipping cows best handled on the farm.

The factors that preserved animal welfare during BSE continue to be used and modified in today’s cow marketing, said Bergen.

“Some animals are more valuable than others and we need to provide the same standard of care for these less valuable animals as we do to the ones that are highly valuable.”

Bergen said in an interview following his presentation that market cows are at highest risk of injury or death in transport because they are older and have often just come off pasture or just off the milking line, often in less than ideal body condition.

“They are less able to withstand the rigours of a long trip, especially in winter.”

The industry has tried to quantify the number of dead or downed cows, with the goal of making regulatory amendments that protect both cow health and beef quality, he said.

Information about proper cow shipping and on-farm retention and euthanasia will again be distributed in coming months, this time to Ontario and the Maritimes now that the Levinoff-Colbex cull cow plant has closed in St. Cyrille de Wendover, Que.

Cows that used to be shipped there will now face longer transport times to Toronto, Guelph or Pennsylvania, all of which are at least 600 kilometres farther away.

A similar situation arose in 2009 when the XL cull cow plant closed in Moose Jaw, Sask., and cows had to be shipped another 500 to 700 km to Alberta plants in Brooks or High River.

At that time, the CFIA and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association urged producers to use common sense and compassion when deciding whether to ship weaker animals.

“We think it helped, so the messaging … we’re making it available to the Ontario cattlemen and to the Maritime Beef Council so they can use the same messaging, or they can ask us to do it for them,” Bergen said.

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