CALGARY, Alta. –Livestock producers, transporters and meat processors each deal with different business challenges but all share a critical interest -the welfare of livestock under their care.
This priority and the benefits of working together to address it was a key focus of the recent Livestock Transport Conference in Calgary. Themed “Are we there yet?” the conference brought together over 120 people including transporters, livestock producers, researchers and other industry leaders from across North America.
“Livestock care is a growing focus of industry and consumers worldwide, and livestock transport is one of the most critical and visible components,” says Dr. Duane Landals, a veterinarian and a board member of Alberta Farm Animal Care, one of the conference sponsors.
Landals offered opening remarks to a morning session that kicked off with presentations on transporting high-risk livestock and managing transport risk at the meat plant.
One of the major priorities for progress in livestock transport is to continually improve the care of vulnerable animals, says Dr. Terry Whiting, manager of animal health and welfare, Manitoba Agriculture and Food, Veterinary Services Branch. Key risk groups include the young, the old, the very thin, the very lame, the very ill and the very compromised.
“All transport is an inconvenience for the animal, but we don’t want to make it a hardship,” says Whiting. “Vulnerable livestock in particular need to be well looked after.”
Addressing the public expectations around this issue requires not only science-based approaches but acknowledgement of the moral and ethical standards upon which society judges the livestock industry.
“As an industry, we are often judged by our worst performance. We have to do all we can to meet today’s expectations while still getting our work done efficiently and making it pay.”
Finding the right approaches requires a strong recognition of the practical realities of transporting livestock. “We need to address the challenges with ideas that combine both scientific and practical knowledge. Experience in transporting livestock has at least as much to offer as the science examining livestock transport.”
Much of the focus in improving livestock transport is on decreasing the potential for animal stress. There are two main avenues to accomplishing this, says Whiting. The first is to improve physical components such as trucks, ramps and facilities. The other is to improve the system of transporting animals. “The efficiency of the system is the one that gets less attention, but I think it is at least as important as the means of transport. It’s harder to measure and harder to regulate, but it’s something that can be addressed by the industry that runs the system.”
As a case study of the opportunity for progress at the meat plant level, Bryan Hay of Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon, Man., discussed how Maple Leaf plants conduct regular humane handling plant audits, which include animal unloading.
“Some see an audit as a curse, but we see it as a blessing,” says Hay, senior manager of hog logistics and animal welfare. “It’s not okay now to just say what we do -we have to prove it. Good livestock care leads to good meat quality. That’s what drives everything.”
For the Brandon plant, livestock care was a top priority when the plant increased production to a double shift. As part of the production increase, it expanded its main holding barn to ensure animals received would have adequate rest -at least three hours rest time. The barn and other facility components of the expansion were also designed with more doors and more alleyways, to allow longer unloading times.
“If people aren’t stressed to get the animals off the trucks, you’d be surprised what you can do for animal welfare,” says Hay.
The plant also adopted the use of cameras in unloading areas, to further support proper livestock handling. “When people are being watched they make sure to do things right. It’s also a good way to catch things and look for ways to improve.”
In addition to regular animal handling audits that include animal unloading, Maple Leaf has taken steps to further support livestock care during transport. It requires the drivers it deals with to be certified in livestock transport training programs such as the Certified Livestock Training (CLT) program in Canada and the Transport Quality Assurance (TQA) program in the US. It also produces animal handling handbooks and provides them to both drivers and livestock producers.
The company is also working internally and with its industry partners to prepare for the potential for third-party audits that have a transportation component. It welcomes these as part of meeting public expectations. “Good animal welfare is something we strive for all the time. But it’s also strictly good business,” says Hay. •