February 5, 2010
Photo supplied by Poultry Transportation Research Group
Travelling can be stressful, even if you’re a pig, chicken or cow.
It might sound Orwellian, but the fact is most of the meat found in the supermarket comes from animals that have travelled by truck and trailer, and moving these animals causes stress that greatly affects the quality of the meat.
Trever Crowe, professor in the College of Engineering, heads up a poultry transportation research group dedicated to minimizing the amount of stress animals undergo during transport. Crowe mentioned that 12 years ago, Saskatchewan had the highest level of chicken deaths during transportation of anywhere in Canada. Today, the province has the lowest rate thanks to research findings by researchers and the poultry industry. Building a test trailer that could monitor the chickens during transport was a big step in keeping the chickens comfortable and alive.
“We have data when we are transporting chickens that shows the temperature was minus 28 outside the trailer and plus 28 inside,” said Crowe. “There are actual conditions in the middle of winter when the birds near the middle of the trailer are suffering from too much heat, while other birds near the outside are too cold.”
During the test runs, chickens are monitored using internal thermometers about the size of a nickel, that take accurate measurements.
Although chickens are adept at coping with temperature change, when the thermostat drops below -12C, it can be damaging to the animal and affect the quality of the meat.
For Crowe, the research in transporting chickens means finding ways to evenly distribute heat throughout the trailer. The birds create a lot of heat, and depending on the size of the trailer, between 9,000 and 13,000 chickens are transported per trailer, so ventilation is a key part of the research.
Crowe said he has plenty of support from colleagues and the industry since the data they are collecting has not been available before.
“Ideally, the birds are kept between five to 10 degrees, but as we know, that’s difficult in Western Canada where the conditions are colder. The strategy is to move the heat from hot locations to areas where it’s colder.”
Pigs require similar temperatures during transport but pose a problem chickens do not. Loading the much larger animals onto a trailer is highly stressful.
Lee Whittington, president and CEO of the Prairie Swine Centre, a research partner with the U of S, said they are noticing that through the monitoring of the animals’ heart rate and temperature, short-term stress can cause watery pork, while prolonged periods of stress causes dark, firm and dry meat.
“During the loading process, we are seeing that there are more stressful compartments in the truck from having to move the pigs up and down ramps, so we either need to design better ramps or better ways to get them in.”
Whittington said they have even tried hydraulic lifts in an attempt to reduce stress, but re-designing the ramps might be the easiest way.
“We won’t replace truck fleets, but there are ways to reduce stress on these animals and we’re finding solutions for them.”