GATINEAU, Que. — Rest stops provided to calves amid 12-hour and 36-hour transport did not reduce fatigue, dehydration, stress or immune status, according to study results.
Although two more years of study will provide more information on whether rest periods benefit cattle in transport, early results call into question the requirement for rest stops in long-haul travel that are mandated in Canada’s new livestock transportation rules that are scheduled to go into effect Feb. 20.
The study, conducted by Agriculture Canada researchers in Lethbridge, took numerous physiological measurements of calves that were shipped after they had a short post-weaning conditioning period in feedlot conditions.
With the exception of reduced fatty acid levels, rest stops did not have a consistent effect on physiology and behaviour, contrary to what was expected.
“Conditioned calves benefited from a shorter trip but they didn’t seem to benefit from a rest stop,” said Beef Cattle Research Council science director Dr. Reynold Bergen.
He provided an overview of study results Nov. 27 at the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council forum.
The study involved 320 Angus-Simmental steers of about 570 pounds and seven to eight months of age. After 2.5 weeks of conditioning in a feedlot, the calves were split into two groups and loaded onto standard livestock hauling trailers. Half travelled for 12 hours and half travelled for 36 hours.
Each group was offloaded partway through the journey and given an eight-hour rest period with food and water. Using analysis of blood, hair and body temperature, researchers measured the calves’ stress, muscle damage, energy deficit, inflammation, dehydration and immunity.
The calves “did not have reduced indicators of fatigue, dehydration, stress or immune status following a rest stop after 12 and 36 hours of transportation,” the study said. “Future studies are needed to assess if newly weaned beef calves benefit from rest stops.”
Researchers have already gathered data on the effect of transit time and rest stop duration on freshly weaned calves and analysis is pending, said Bergen.
A third part of the study, to be done in 2020-21, will examine the effect of rest stop quality, including stocking density in the pen, amount of feed bunk space, water availability and bedding.
It will also assess how calves fare in the feedlot if they had a rest stop in Thunder Bay, Ont., while in transit to that feedlot, Bergen said.
Previous Canadian studies have shown that 95 percent of cattle are transported to the desired destination within 36 hours. Pending regulations require a rest stop be provided if time in transit plus the time an animal is without food, water and rest exceeds that.
The cattle sector has concerns about the stress associated with the rest stop requirement because of additional handling and health risks associated with commingling.
“There’s valid concerns,” Bergen said in a later interview.
“We know that loading and unloading are the most stressful parts of the trip, so if we have a rest stop, we’re going to impose another loading and unloading and we don’t know what the effects of that are. That’s why we’re doing the research.
“Another concern is just simply do we have enough rest stop facilities because most of these calves are probably travelling at about the same time of year and at this point, there’s really only two commercial rest stop facilities that I know of, both at Thunder Bay.”
Animal welfare groups have criticized the 36-hour time limit in the new regulations, which are reduced from the previous 48-hour limit for cattle in transit. They say 36 hours is still too long for cattle to go without food, water and rest.
Allowed transport times are much shorter in Europe, for example.
The Canadian cattle industry has noted a lack of studies on Canadian conditions and is helping to fund research. It has asked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to delay implementation of the new rules until the results of studies now underway can be taken into account.
A two-year transition period for the cattle sector was announced in December. Dr. Aline Dimitri of the CFIA confirmed there will be a soft launch of the new regulations.
“On Feb. 20, 2020, we will not be sending the dogs out to get everybody. That’s not the point,” she said. “We are definitely looking at a very soft enforcement.”
Dimitri said the CFIA is aware that the new regulations are a significant change and it will take time for the livestock industry to adjust.