In September, a truck loaded with cattle raced around a curve on an Idaho highway and overturned, killing at least 30 animals.
“Drivers need to be trained in how to handle a load that will shift,” says Ron Gill, professor and livestock specialist for Texas A&M Extension. “It’s important to brake slowly and not turn too quickly.”
But there is more to the proper handling of cattle during transport than safe driving skills. So much more that Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) has produced the “Master Cattle Transporter Guide,” a Beef Check-off-funded guide to highlight proper transport issues and techniques.
“Most people want to do things right because it’s the right thing to do,” says John Paterson, NCBA executive director for producer education. He says there is also economic incentive. “Cattle are too valuable today to do things wrong.”
“It all starts with stockmanship,” says Curt Pate, livestock handling specialist with Curt Pate Stockmanship. “The environment is set before loading begins. If cattle are agitated, their heart rate increases, panic sets in and it carries through the long haul.”
Pate says there is a difference between positive and negative pressure and adds that negative pressure seldom produces a positive outcome.
Gill echoes that theory. “There’s a difference between putting cattle on trucks and getting them to go on trucks.”
BQA guidelines define the animal’s field of vision, flight zone and point of balance. Cattle should never be approached directly from behind (their blind spot), and cattle can generally be moved calmly by applying pressure to the point of balance on the shoulder. Likewise, being aware of the flight zone (the comfortable distance between you and the animal) can help keep cattle calm. Use of flags and paddles should be kept to a minimum and should replace electric prods as much as possible. Sudden movements and loud voices and noises do not help.
Pate says preparing cattle for calm movement and transport starts with the producer. “Every time they’re handled is a training experience for the next time.” Weaning, vaccinating and branding are perfect opportunities. The key is to teach them to accept pressure and to walk straight away with pressure. “They have to learn to be driven.”
Cattle also have to learn to be comfortable in a crowd. “As you’re working them, put them in a tight spot. If they start to panic (raising their heads, swishing their tails), give them space and let them get their head about them,” Pate says. “Then crowd them in again. They’ll soon understand they won’t get hurt or stepped on just because they get bumped.”
They will also remember fear of handlers. Pate says that can come into play if they are weak or lame. Pate adds they can be hard to identify if they are afraid. “It’s basic predator versus prey. If they are afraid of you, they will try to hide the weakness, not let you see it. If they’re not afraid, it will be easy to spot animals that need to be separated off .”
Once loading day arrives, most precautions involve common sense. Trailers should be clean. BQA guidelines say trucks should be cleaned between species and changes from feeders to fat cattle.
Animals should be sorted by size. “You don’t want to put 300-pound calves with cows,” Pate says. “And it’s important to make sure the number of cattle is appropriate for the compartment size.” Pre-sorting will help with the animals’ attitude.
Temperature also matters. The BQA guide suggests avoiding hauling cattle if the temperature is over 100 degrees, or at least between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on hot days. Stops should be kept to a minimum, and avoid excess handling and overcrowding of the trailer.
There are health and economic considerations to maintaining a calm environment during sorting and loading.
Cattle restless and excited during transport have shown elevated cortisol levels upon arrival, and that can lead to immune system suppression. Young calves in particular are prone to bovine respiratory disease (BRD), even without reducing their immune response even further.
And that means money. BRD accounts for 29 percent of all calf losses in the United States, according to Washington State University Extension, and feedlot cattle with BRD take a $23 to $150 loss compared to healthy cattle.
Gill says starting with healthy, weaned calves (at least 30 days prior to transport) helps. “That way you’re not stacking stressors on top of each other.” He adds travel stress can lead to loss of intestinal products and body mass due to trauma to the digestive system.
“If the destination is the feedlot, the stress can lead to increased cost of gain, medical expenses and increased death loss,” says Gill, who adds studies have shown post-weaning illness can make a $100 to $300 difference in value at slaughter.
There can also be meat-quality issues. Gill Ranch to Rail data show a decrease in the percentage of Choice-grade carcasses from cattle that experienced illness.
Rough handling causes bruising, resulting in dark cutters and requiring excessive trimming. The Texas Beef Quality Producer Program estimates the trim loss at “millions of dollars” a year. The Ohio Beef Quality Assurance Program quantifies the loss at $22 million.
A study recently completed by Dr. Dan Thomson, director of the Beef Cattle Institute and Jones Professor of Epidemiology and Production Medicine at Kansas State University, evaluates more than 18,000 beef carcasses in Texas and Oklahoma feedlots. Of the observed carcasses, 37.4 percent showed bruising; 20.7 percent were classified as severe, or with bruises more than 6 inches in diameter.
Thomson suggests looking for gates and edges where cattle may collide with a hard surface to help prevent bruising. But, sometimes the wrong type of truck is the culprit — using feeder cattle trailers instead of fat cattle trailers (a 4-inch difference in height). Thomson’s study reveals two-thirds of the bruises were on the animals’ withers and hips, likely the result of hitting their backs as they entered the trailer.
As cattle have gown in size, the industry has adjusted. “The average Angus is now the same size as the Simmentals were in the 1980s,” Thomson says. That also changes the way trailer compartments are used and the number of animals that can be hauled in one load.
It’s not just about getting cattle safely on the truck; it’s also about getting them off the truck.
“I see a lot of drivers using a hot shot at the gate to get cattle into the truck,” Pate says. “I understand why they do that, but it can have an unwanted eff ect. The cattle remember that, and they spend the whole trip worried that he’s there waiting for them when they come back off .” Thomson’s study revealed significant levels of lung lesions and liver abscess, issues accentuated by transport stress. The same thing happens if cattle slip going in. Sure footing is crucial.
Moving down the road
Once the truck is on the move, driving skills are paramount. Gill suggests allowing time for the cattle to settle into position before hitting the road. “I’ve seen drivers pull out while the trailer is still rocking from the cattle jockeying for position. That can sometimes take 30 to 90 minutes, and unless you’re on a straight, level stretch of road it can be tricky.”
For Paterson and NCBA, the focus is on education of drivers and handlers. Gill says it’s an issue that warrants more attention. “We don’t always appreciate how many times cattle are transported in this industry. Some people don’t see a need to do things differently, but often producers just don’t know exactly what to do, or they think they don’t have the facilities. Other times the responsibility gets lost in the change of ownership.”
Pate adds one more reason why proper cattle handling should be at the top of everyone’s list.
“Always remember what we do has to be acceptable to the public as well as the cattle,” Pate says. “Any small element can become a YouTube clip. Loud noises and too much physical activity not only upset the cattle, they draw what may be unwanted attention.”
For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Courtney Coufal at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 845-1542.