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Wheels Of Fortune

There's too much to do, the market is horrible and cousin Fred just tore up the loader again. It's so tempting to slam the trailer gate on the feeder cattle you just loaded and say, See ya, you're someone else's problem now. Don't. Universally, it can be said that transportation is probably the single greatest stressor in an animal's life, says Janice Swanson, professor of animal science and industry

There's too much to do, the market is horrible and cousin Fred just tore up the loader — again. It's so tempting to slam the trailer gate on the feeder cattle you just loaded and say, “See ya, you're someone else's problem now.”


“Universally, it can be said that transportation is probably the single greatest stressor in an animal's life,” says Janice Swanson, professor of animal science and industry at Kansas State University (KSU). She adds that stresses can be cumulative in nature.

Clambering aboard a trailer for the first time and feeling the ground move beneath you is stressful on a calf. But research and experience indicate the more stress placed on cattle in a short period of time — be it from weaning, processing, etc. — the more likely cattle are to get sick.

“We have to focus on how we can make the handoff better and take more responsibility for the end-product,” says Tim O'Byrne of Calico Beef Consulting based in Consort, Alberta, Canada.

During stints as cow boss for Canada's largest cattle ranch, then as manager of a 90,000-head feedyard, O'Byrne saw firsthand the impact he and his crew, as well as truckers and equipment, were having on cattle health and performance.

“We've got dark cutters, bruising on fats at the plant and stress on calves coming into the feedyard. In extreme cases, you could tell the cattle had just been hauled wrong,” says O'Byrne. “I started to realize, ‘Hey, these are our cattle until they hit the rail.’”

After all, buyers can't necessarily know how cattle were handled in the loading process, or whether the trucker double-parked at a Northern Plains casino for a 24-hour coffee break. They only know the condition of the cattle when they show up, how many get sick or die and the brand on the hip.

“I couldn't help but notice these truckers were totally out of the loop with us and that we weren't taking responsibility for the entire process,” says O'Byrne. “It made me look at the entire relocation process.”

A Journey, Not An Event

First, O'Byrne breaks the relocation process into three primary components These include:

  • grouping cattle for the haul and planning the time of shipment,

  • loading and transporting the cattle and

  • receiving and settling cattle on the other end.

(See “Making Cattle Relocation Less Stressful” on page 38.)

“From the time a group of grass calves leaves your pasture, goes through the stockyard and arrives at a feedlot, it could be four or five days before they return to a stable social and physical environment,” says O'Byrne. “And we all have a piece of that responsibility.”

Swanson emphasizes, “In general, it can be said that transport causes stress beyond what is caused by feed deprivation alone, and most stress is incurred during the early phases of transport. But poor management before and after transport can exacerbate these effects.”

Of course, trying to quantify exactly what part of relocation caused which performance failure or success is like trying to bulldog a hurricane.

“There's no such thing as no stress,” says Swanson. “It's a matter of managing stress to the point cattle don't go down physically or immunologically.”

For managing stress, O'Byrne first suggests taking into account the timing and route of the trip rather than merely picking a shipping date on the calendar.

“It's so easy to look at a map and figure out distance, but the trip really consists of climate, time and road conditions,” he says.

Is there a major front moving in that will slow the trucks down? If you've been able to fry eggs on the squeeze chute for the last week, what time of day are you going to load out?

Next, Swanson says cattle must be fit to travel.

“If you get the weaning, vaccinating and castrating done at least a month prior to shipment, you give their immune systems a chance to kick in,” she says.

“Study your animals for any debilitating conditions (injury or lameness) before you put them on the truck. You want to decrease any possibility you will have a downer on the other side of the haul,” Swanson adds.

She suggests producers then take stock of their facilities and crew.

“Make sure you have a skilled handling crew for loading and proper facilities with good footing to eliminate slipping and falling. Examine the loading area on a regular basis and keep it well maintained,” says Swanson.

Functioning facilities reduce stress on workers as well, she adds. That, in turn, reduces stress on the cattle.

Hauler Evaluation

Next, don't make any assumptions about truckers and their equipment.

“Make sure you're contracting with skilled truckers. Look at years of experience. Get references on who they have hauled cattle for before,” says Swanson.

“Talk to the driver yourself or have someone meet him. Watch his behavior. Is he impatient, careless? Does it appear he knows the first thing about cattle?” she says.

Likewise, O'Byrne advises, “Ask them what they have to offer in terms of equipment. Lay out the terms for how you want them shipped. Ask them about the route. Tell them the number of times you expect them to stop and the length of time you expect for each stop. Don't assume. Tell them what you want.”

Swanson believes hauler evaluation includes calling the destination to learn the condition in which the cattle arrived.

Incidentally, O'Byrne has been using a course he developed to train Canadian truck drivers and shippers/receivers for livestock hauling — about 500 so far. The U.S. industry is showing interest in a training and certification process, too.

“A lot of guys can drive a truck very well, but that doesn't qualify them to handle livestock,” says O'Byrne. “A lot of the drivers we're training like the fact that it quantifies the professional nature of their job.”

Tips For Short Trips

These recommendations also apply to short gooseneck trips between pastures. Even if you figure cousin Fred can't louse it up, make sure folks carting the cattle around know how to handle them and know how to get to where they're supposed to be going.

In the case of equipment, Swanson says a primary loading consideration is the distance cattle must step up from the ground to the trailer floor. Is the entry well lit? Are panels solid-sided so cattle aren't distracted?

“Make sure there is sound footing in the trailer, and don't pack them so tight they can't turn around to get off the trailer,” says Swanson. “Even though it may be a short period of time and distance, you don't want it to be a traumatic event.”

Take The Stress Out Of Cattle Relocation

Stage 1 - Grouping

  • Understand the relocation process. Several handoffs involving many people are going to take place during livestock transportation.

  • Understand the laws relating to cattle transport. If you don't, they may bite you.

  • Keep an eye on the route weather. Long-haul cattle in North America can end up being subjected to the weather conditions of many geographic areas during their trip.

  • You need “flow” in your handling facilities. Flow means the cattle can walk through the system easily, continuously and undistracted.

  • Don't load unfit animals. It's the shipper's responsibility to choose only physically fit cattle to go on the truck. Transport the poor-doers separately on a smaller stock trailer or deal with them on site.

  • Long-haul cattle need rest, feed and water before they go. Animals sent on a trip of more than four hours must be in peak physical condition.

Stage 2 - Transport

  • Hire a reputable trucking company. If you've been in this business for longer than a year, you know who they are. Neither shipper nor trucker should keep the other waiting.

  • Know their equipment. Most people agree air-ride trailers are easier on long-haul cattle.

  • Understand loading densities and weights. You can only fill a bucket of water so full. Help the trucker figure out what's best for your cattle.

  • Does the trucker understand your wishes? Let the driver know exactly what you want. The cattle belong to you. Indiscriminate prod use or unnecessary roughness is not allowed.

  • After all the handoffs, will your cattle be delivered in good health? If your reputation is important to you, follow through the transport stage to ensure the cattle get to the other end in good health. The buyers appreciate cattle that are known to be problem free.

Stage 3 - Settlement or Termination

  • Follow-up on the feedyard induction protocol. If you've retained ownership on your calves into the feedyard, it's extremely important to have a qualified feedyard induction or processing crew handle your new arrivals in a facility with good flow. All the little things add up. Check 'em out.

  • Follow-up with rail-grades. If being paid on the rail, understand that plenty can happen between the time the animal leaves the yard and the time it hits the kill-floor.

Source: Tim O'Byrne, Calico Beef Consulting, Consort, Alberta, Canada.

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