Beef code of practice open to comment until March

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Ranchers, farmers and consumers are all able to have their say until March 8 on the proposed Canadian code of practice for care and handling of beef cattle.

The public comment period opened earlier this month on the draft code, which can be viewed online with an option to submit comments.

The draft code, under development since September 2010, is being updated through the National Farm Animal Care Council’s (NFACC) code development process in partnership with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

The code development committee’s process to date has included a peer-reviewed scientists’ committee report, summarizing research on priority welfare topics for beef cattle, the CCA said in a statement.

When finalized for release, which is expected to take place in June, the code will be "an important tool for communicating how beef cattle are raised in Canada," the CCA said.

Consumers and industry stakeholders now get their say to ensure the code reflects a common understanding of beef cattle care expectations and science-based recommended practices in Canada, said Ryder Lee, CCA’s manager of federal and provincial relations.

"This public comment period really allows us to check our work with an even more representative group," said Lee, who served as a member of the code development committee.

Among the requirements for cattle handling in Canada, as laid out in the draft code, are:

  • access to areas, either natural or man-made, that provide cattle with relief from extreme weather such as heat, cold, wind, or flooding;
  • "reasonable steps" to promptly assist individual cattle showing signs of not coping with extremes in heat or cold;
  • ready access to equipment for the safe handling, restraint, treatment, segregation, loading and unloading of animals, including traction to minimize slips and falls;
  • cattle housing, including pens and corrals, providing space for each animal to stand up, lie down, adopt normal resting postures, and move easily;
  • "sufficient access" to feed of adequate quality and quantity to fulfill animals’ nutritional needs, accounting for factors such as age, frame size, reproductive status, health status, level of production, competition and weather;
  • corrective action to improve the body condition score of any cattle with a BCS of less than 2 out of 5;
  • all reasonable steps to prevent exposure of cattle to toxins (lead batteries, fertilizer, treated seed, antifreeze, nitrates) and to avoid feed with adverse physical qualities such as awns;
  • sufficient access to water of adequate quality and quantity;
  • a backup plan to provide feed and water in emergencies or if normal supply is disrupted;
  • an ongoing working relationship with a practicing veterinarian;
  • close monitoring of cattle at higher risk of illness, injury or compromised welfare;
  • treatment for sick, injured, or lame cattle "without delay;"
  • reporting suspicion of a reportable disease (as per the federal Health of Animals Act) to a veterinarian;
  • culling (if fit for transport) or euthanizing cattle "without delay" where animals don’t respond to treatment or have a poor prognosis for recovery;
  • a disease prevention strategy, including vaccination, for feedlot cattle;
  • avoiding abrupt dietary changes;
  • familiarity with signs of calving difficulty and "timely assistance as necessary" using proper equipment, appropriate restraint, and accepted veterinary techniques; and
  • "prompt" assistance to newborn calves and recently-calved cows showing signs of distress.

Animal handlers, the code proposes, must be familiar with cattle behaviour and use "quiet handling" techniques. Electric prods, the code adds, must only be used to assist movement of cattle when animal or human safety is at risk and only when cattle have a clear path to move.

Examples of "mistreating animals," which the code emphasizes is "unacceptable," includes but is not limited to striking an animal repeatedly; using electric prods repeatedly, or on an animal’s genitals, face, udder or anal areas; slamming gates on animals; allowing herd dogs to continue pushing cattle with nowhere to move; or moving animals with machinery, except where needs be to protect animals’ or people’s safety.

"Unfit cattle," as per the draft code, "must not be transported, unless for veterinary diagnosis or treatment under the advice of a veterinarian," while "compromised" animals may only be transported with special provisions, and directly to their final destination.

Cattle to be transported for more than 24 hours must receive feed and water within five hours of loading, the code states, and cows or heifers likely to give birth during the journey must not be transported. The code obliges both cattle producers and transporters to "immediately" report instances of inhumane handling to "proper authorities."

Branding, where required, "must be performed with the proper equipment, restraint, and by personnel with training or sufficient combination of knowledge and experience, using accepted practices," the code proposes, adding that wet cattle must not be branded, due to scalding risk.

Similarly, processing such as castration and dehorning must be done "only by competent personnel using proper, well-maintained tools and accepted technique." Debudding or castrating calves must be done as early as practically possible. Tail-docking must not be done on beef cattle unless on the advice of a veterinarian.

Where cattle must be euthanized, an "acceptable method" must be used "in order to cause the least possible pain and distress" and "must be performed by personnel with training or a sufficient combination of knowledge and experience." The draft code includes a chart of acceptable methods, procedures and equipment.

Non-ambulatory or "downer" animals may not be dragged or forced to move before they’re euthanized, the code adds.

"Writing compliance"

In an op-ed piece released to farm journals this week, Cam Dahl, general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers, urged ranchers who haven’t yet read or commented on the draft code to do so before the deadline.

The code of practice, Dahl emphasized, "is not a regulatory issue for producers. You don’t need to fear government inspectors arriving on your ranch to confirm your compliance."

However, he said, in the future "you can expect buyers writing compliance (with the code) into contracts before they purchase your animals. And they might even be willing to pay a bit more for that."

In laying out the need for such a code, Dahl cited "examples all around us of what happened to an industry when it loses its social license" — that is, society’s general acceptance of a given practice. Seal pelts, he noted, "generated good income for decades — until the industry lost the acceptance of consumers."

Also in recent years, he wrote, hog and poultry operations are being urged to change their practices, "not because of new government regulations but because their customers and consumers have demanded change."

In many ways, he wrote, "the revision of the beef code of practice can be viewed as our industry renewing its social license to operate."

NFACC’s proposed equine code of practice is also still open for public comment, until Feb. 14.