Cattle Suffering “Appalling” on China Voyage

cattle suffering heat stress (source IO report 55)
cattle suffering heat stress (source: IO report 55)

Published Mar 4, 2020 7:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

14 months after the live export voyage, Australia's Department of Agriculture has released the onboard observer's report (IO report 55) for the 22-day voyage made by the Shorthorn Express to China - the report indicates that the livestock onboard suffered from food and water deprivation, amongst other welfare issues. 

Spokesperson for Vets Against Live Export (VALE) Dr. Sue Foster described the animal suffering portrayed in the report as appalling, saying: “The voyage ran out of food due mainly to rough seas reducing vessel speed which increased voyage length by three days. Very limited feed was available from late on Day 19, as the fodder supplies were exhausted, and some cattle were not fed at all during the day of discharge as zero food remained. A long voyage duration was anticipated from Day 2 so why did this vessel not turn back to Australia or load extra food at the next available Australian port?”

In addition to overall lack of food, cattle in individual pens were also deprived of food from days 5 to 13. Larger pens with a higher number of cattle had generally the same number of feed troughs provided as smaller pens with a lower number of cattle. This caused competition for access to feed troughs later in the voyage and incidents of trampling. Shy feeders went days at a time with no food. 

Then the vessel ran out of water for the animals. The reverse osmosis (RO) unit was not able to produce the required amount of water on many days due to rough seas, RO unit breakdown and restricted use when the vessel was close to ports. On days 5, 8, 9-13, and 16-18, cattle on some or all decks did not have access to water for up to four hours daily. 

Foster said: “During the times of severe heat and humidity when animals were displaying heat stress, there was no water. The suffering can only be imagined.”

The report states that most animals had heat stress to some degree with  5-10 percent of animals having a heat stress score of 3.5-4 (4.5 is near death) over days 7-13, often with inadequate water. Then the animals arrived in China to experience temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius. 

Unsatisfactory pen and deck conditions were experienced due in part to inadequate corrective maintenance by crew, leaking water pipes and fire hydrants, malfunctioning nose bowls, build-up of the thickness of the pad, spilled feed in the aisles, high temperatures and humidity and blocked drains. Flooding was experienced due to deficiencies in the drainage system, and this contributed to temperature and humidity conditions as hatches had to remain closed. 

Ventilation only had one setting. Hotter areas were identified within the decks due to ventilation infrastructure and impediments to air flow such as ramps, walls and piles of feed. Other obstructions inhibiting ventilation included feed troughs suspended from overhead wires when not in use.

Foster said: “Critically, and despite the rough seas, there was little to no bedding used until the animals arrived in China, which would create the impression that the animals had had access to appropriate bedding for the entire journey. These Australian dairy cattle which would be accustomed to a high standard of care were not only exposed to food and water deprivation, rough seas, heat and cold stress but they couldn’t even lie down in comfort. They had no bedding on this rocking multi-storey feedlot.”

Foster continued, “Sick animals no doubt suffered more. In addition, cattle in some hospital pens had the added misery of overflow of wash-down material from the decks above resulting in fecal soiling of feed and water troughs and coat contamination. Drug administration devices were unhygienic. And then two injured cattle could not be euthanized, as Chinese authorities would not allow the use of the captive bolt in port. These cattle were left on the ship and the bosun was instructed by the stockperson how to euthanize both of them once the ship left port. The fate and welfare of these cattle is unknown, the stockman having left the ship (contrary to Australian ASEL standards) before all animals were discharged. 

The stockman was described as caring, however, the report would appear to indicate incompetence with poor pen and shy feeder management, inability to ration food appropriately or direct appropriate crew actions. In addition, the stockperson did not store or utilize drug administration devices in a hygienic fashion and no necropsies were performed, says Foster. 

The observer concluded that the health and welfare of the cattle was adversely affected during the voyage due to a number of contributing factors, some of which were outside the control of the exporter, including weather conditions.

Foster disagreed, “The hot and humid conditions at the Equator occur all year round, and the cold conditions in China are also completely predictable. Rough seas were obviously predicted from Day 2. Anyone that can use a computer can reasonably predict weather conditions. Exporters routinely send southern Australian Bos taurus cattle to China regardless of weather predictions. Sending animals on this ship into these conditions was definitely in the control of the exporter.

“Not only was this within the control of the exporter, it was within the control of the regulator, the federal Department of Agriculture. The Department knows the temperature conditions likely to be experienced by these animals. They know that some degree of heat stress occurs in southern Bos taurus cattle on nearly every voyage crossing the Equator. They know that animals arriving in a northern Chinese winter port can experience extreme cold and that these cattle have to adapt from equatorial heat and humidity to temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celcius in less than a week.  

“They also have ample evidence that many voyages to China take substantially longer than anticipated, with 11.5 percent of voyages having insufficient food due to voyages being longer than the maximum contingency for food. The Department should be insisting that at least six days extra food be carried on every China voyage -  the routine three days above anticipated (ASEL) plus an extra three days to cover the possibility of extended delays as this has happened repeatedly.”

Foster says, “These observer reports, instigated by Minister Littleproud, are invaluable in identifying serious risks. It is time that the Department stop just filing them and actually analyze them. A very predictable pattern emerges on these voyages to China despite the sparse and sanitized information provided in the public domain. There are clearly numerous issues of poor ship infrastructure, mechanical failures, food deprivation, heat stress and cold stress. And why is a veterinarian mandatory on Middle Eastern voyages of three weeks but not on voyages to China? These voyages are essentially of the same duration but often of greater complexity for the exported cattle.”
Foster says that it is only a matter of time before some horrified crew member or independent observer goes public as happened during the high mortality voyage of the Awassi Express. Whistleblower footage from the voyage where thousands of sheep died of heat stress caused a public outcry. Other independent observer reports have also indicated that animal welfare issues continue to occur in the industry.