Producers must provide answers

PIPESTONE, Manitoba — Canadian cattle producers are urged to pay more attention to the issue of livestock transport because consumers are certainly doing so.

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association vice-president Martin Unrau recently said at a town hall meeting in Pipestone that federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz’s office receives more letters on livestock transport than any other issue.

“This is where the consumer sees the animals,” Unrau said at the meeting, which is part of a new communication effort to help the CCA connect with cattle producers.

“We have to be accountable to the public…. The perception has to be that we look after our cattle very well in transport.”

A Ritz spokesperson confirmed that the minister’s office received more than 200 letters on the topic last year.

Unrau’s comments were made weeks after dozens of animals died when a commercial cattle truck collided with a train north of Carberry, Man. That type of incident may be a random occurrence, but the related headlines and television news stories can potentially alter the public’s perception of livestock production and transport.

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, who studies the transport stress of farm animals for Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge, said it’s hard to control the emotional reactions of Canadian motorists when they drive by a trailer filled with cattle, pigs or chickens.

Nevertheless, Canada’s cattle industry must be prepared to deal with the related questions and concerns, she added.

“If a customer has a question, they have a right to ask it. It’s going to look far better for the industry … if (it) can answer some of those questions honestly with some knowledge and science behind it,” she said.

One concern is the length of time that cattle are kept inside trailers.

Canadian regulations allow cattle to be transported for 52 hours without stopping for food or water, but animal welfare organizations such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) have argued that’s much too long and too stressful on the animals.

In its 2010 report on Canada’s farm animal transport system, WSPA referred to a Harris/Decima poll that said the public feels the same way.

The poll found that 96 percent of Canadians felt it is at least somewhat important to limit transport times to reduce animal suffering.

Unrau said reducing the maximum time inside a trailer would severely affect Manitoba cattle producers because the province is many hours from slaughter plants and major feedlot operations.

While he conceded that reducing the maximum time makes sense for animal welfare, he also said no one really knows the appropriate length of trip for a cold and vast country like Canada.

Animal welfare experts in Canada such as Schwartzkopf-Genswein are studying the issue, but there are many unanswered questions:

  • is it better to unload animals during a trip to provide food and water?
  • should food and water be provided on the trailer?

Schwartzkopf-Genswein said it may seem obvious that stopping for food and water or providing food and water onboard makes sense for animal welfare, but those questions lead to other questions.

“We’re not even sure if off loading for feed and water even helps the animals…. (Would) they even drink the water because it’s different to them?” she said.

“Is welfare better if they are provided with feed and water? Probably. But what do we do when it’s – 30 C and the water freezes?”

The livestock industry needs to find the answers or someone outside the industry may impose a set of regulations for livestock transport in Canada, Schwartzkopf-Genswein said.

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