Wise call to delay new livestock transport rules

The federal Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to soften the introductory period for new livestock transportation rules by allowing a two-year wait time before enforcement begins is a welcome move, one that came after requests from cattle associations.

One can argue that the ministry jumped the gun on setting next month for implementation, since there is new research being conducted that will be available over the next year. That research, which is partially funded by the federal government, could well have an impact on the regulations.

There are two contentious areas. Time during which animals can be without food, water and rest before and during transit is being reduced to 36 hours from 48, and rest times are being increased to eight hours from five for some animals.

This will mostly affect long-haul trips from the Prairies to central Canada, from Eastern Canada to Ontario and Quebec, and some cross-border trips.

Livestock operators are worried that there are not enough off-loading facilities available for rest stops and that comingling in such facilities could adversely affect biosecurity.

As well, intangibles such as bad weather, road disruptions and mechanical failure on trucks can cause delays that require more offloading and loading.

There is also some question as to whether the move to more rest stops is actually achieving what it’s intended to do – reduce stress on the animals.

Researchers have already gathered information on the effect of transit time and rest top duration on weaned calves, and a study to be done this year will look at rest stop quality, including density in pens, the amount of feed bunk space, water availability and bedding. It will also look at how well calves will do in a feedlot if they have had a rest stop during transit.

Preliminary results, conducted by Agriculture Canada researchers in Lethbridge, suggest that rest stops provided to calves for 12-hour and 36-hour trips did not necessarily improve their health.

If that is the case, it lends some credence to what cattle producers have been saying – that the new rules could increase stress since it’s known that loading and offloading are important stressors on animals.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association quotes studies that indicate 99.9 percent of animals arrive at their intended destinations in good condition. And since the condition of the animals at loading is a key factor in their health upon arrival, it’s possible that prescriptive procedures that involve loading and offloading will aggravate animal health.

Canadian cattle producers have a good record for transportation of their animals. Indeed, as veterinarian Roy Lewis points out, cattle from the Prairies are fetching higher prices in eastern Canada in part because buyers like the condition of the animals.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is tasked with enforcing the rules, has said in the past that they are a balance of “prescriptive and outcome based requirements.”

This appeals to animal welfare groups who want changes, but since there is now research with tangible results pending, should not outcomes be the determining factor in regulations, which then lead to prescriptive rules?

And while Europe does demand shorter transportation times, as pointed out by animal welfare groups, there are a lot of differences. Travel distances tend to be shorter due to higher population densities, the vehicles are designed differently and winter weather is not as severe.

It’s understandable that regulators want to get on with it, since rules have not been substantially updated since 1977. But the opportunity to study outcomes is pending. Let’s see what researchers find before demanding changes that may have unintended consequences.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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