From the ranch to the processing yard, beef calves endure high levels of stress dealing with new, foreign environments that can ultimately affect beef quality and the producers’ bottom line. And while for most cattlemen, it’s always a satisfying feeling to get the calves loaded onto the trailer and watch the truck fade into the horizon, many producers harbor some degree of anxiety until they know the cattle have reached their destination safely.
Reassurance generally comes in the form of a trusted trucker and handling the animals in a calm and stress-free environment, according to Ted Friend, professor of animal sciences at Texas A&M University.
“As an industry, we are very concerned with how the animals are handled,” said Friend. “I’ve been involved in this industry for 35 years and have seen producers’ and truckers’ attitudes change dramatically. This generation is very aware of what’s appropriate and are doing what’s best for the animals and what’s best for beef quality.”
For Jim Schwartner, of Capitol Land and Livestock in Schwartner, Texas, who purchases and hauls more than 400,000 cattle annually across the continental United States, his drivers are trained extensively on how to handle animals humanely and appropriately without the use of aids such as a hot shot.
“Our company has always had the policy of treating animals humanely, it makes sense economically, we care about the well-being of the animals we’re shipping,” said Schwartner, whose family has owned and operated Capitol Land and Livestock since 1946. “We try to keep the animals as calm as possible and ways we can do that is not to slam gates and move the animals in a natural flow staying away from hot shots as much as possible.”
Master Cattle Transporter Guide
If not required by company policy, many cattle truckers are being asked by producers or packers to attend cattle handling and transportation training such as the Master Cattle Transporter Guide offered in a DVD and manual format at www.tbqa.com.
The Master Cattle Transporter Guide, commissioned as part of the National Beef Quality Assurance program of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is available free of charge by its cooperative partners Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska and Kansas State University. The guide released nearly two years is designed to help educate transporters on proper handling and transport of cattle in order to reduce sickness in calves, prevent bruising and improve the quality of meat from these animals.
“Participation in this Master Cattle Transporter program is one way to show your customers that you are ready to take every step possible to keep their cattle healthy and as safe as possible,” said Ran Smith, DVM and chairman of the National Beef Quality Assurance Advisory Board.
The 45-minute training DVD covers how to properly move cattle up to and on to the trailer, distributing cattle correctly on the trailer, hauling techniques that reduce stress and handling emergency situations.
“This is a great tool to have drivers look at, but it is not being required yet as an industry as is it is pork,” said Ron Gill, professor and Extension livestock specialist for Texas A&M. “Right now it remains a company by company issue.”
In addition to the DVD for commercial drivers, Texas A&M and partners are also in the midst of releasing a video for stock trailer drivers and dairy cattle transporters particularly.
Many states have also implemented additional Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) education initiatives to help beef producers hone in new husbandry skills that impact beef quality. While the program largely focuses on the proper use of animal health products and handling cattle, very little has been addressed in the area of cattle transportation, until now.
“There is a big push back from packers to improve cattle transporting, some are even requiring cattle handling training for truckers and this is a first,” Gill said.
While most veteran truckers consider themselves quite cattle savvy, the push in the animal rights and welfare circles is having its affect on the sector as well.
“Truckers are even more diligent then they ever have been before, they’re careful of the risks they take on the road,” said Friend. “Animals that arrive at the yard bruised and sick with shipping fever are turned away and cost a lot of money for everyone. There is a big financial incentive to take care of the animals the best you can. For this reason, more folks are seeing the importance of proper cattle transporting and handling.”
One of the nation’s foremost experts in the design of cattle handling equipment Temple Grandin, of Colorado State University, whose life mission has been to reduce the stress and anxiety to animals during handling and loading.
“One of the most important things to moving is to have a calm animal,” she said. “Animals react poorly to yelling and screaming. A key goal to good stockman ship is paying attention to the details.”
According to Grandin, some of the biggest hindrances in moving animals is slippery floors, too much light or shadows, open sides in a chute and jerky movements.
Suggestions for improvements include skylights installed in the walls to improve cattle movement into an existing dark building or trailer, solid fences instead of an open-sided chute and a “curved system instead of a straight one because animals will turn back in the same direction they came from in most cases,” she said.
For this reason, Grandin designed a curved chute system with solid sides, which she encourages producers and packers to consider when retrofitting new or existing handling facilities.
Grandin explained that curved cattle chutes are more efficient for handling cattle because they take advantage of the natural behavior of cattle. Cattle move through curved races more easily because they have a natural tendency to go back to where they came from.
To view Grandin’s drawings of handling equipment for both large and small ranches and feedlots, including cattle loading ramps for trucks, diagonal stockyard pens for cattle, visit her website at www.templegrandin.com
Stress in Transport
“Most stress in transport is not good stress, cortisol levels fluctuate, heart rate increases and we’ve noticed body temperature change significantly when the animals encounter something new, which as you can imagine, it’s all pretty new and different when they get on and off the truck,” said Friend.
One new innovation Friend shared was a newly cross-ventilated trailer providing more airflow for the cattle, therefore reducing the static disease-carrying air in the truck.
“Basically, how this works is the trailer is cross-ventilated, diverting the air in, across and out the trailer,” said Friend. “In a conventional punch side trailer, the air is not immediately circulated out, so when an animal sneezes it hovers and causes other animals to get sick, this is one of the reasons shipping fever spreads so easily. We’re still getting data, but it seems to work well. It’s showing promise to reduce health issues.”
While for the most part, according to Gill and Schwartner, not much has changed in the cattle transportation arena aside from fluctuating fuel prices, according to Friend, the biggest change is that cattle are traveling farther than ever before.
“We’re definitely noticing longer trips, feed yards are consolidating and producers are becoming more efficient,” he said.
Schwartner reported that cattle onboard one of his 20-plus trucks can anticipate an average 600-700-mile drive.
“After 12 to 14 hours, we try to stop and rest, it depends on the temperature outside and the season too, it could be less,” he explained.
Schwartner who purchases the majority of his company’s calves at livestock auctions said Capitol Land and Livestock charges clients a flat rate per loaded mile in addition to a fuel surcharge.
“Eighty percent of our calves are bought at the auction, while 20 percent are bought direct from the ranch. We offer a fair market price, ranchers know we’re competitive,” he added.
For Schwartner, efficiency is key and has been improving significantly in the last 10 years.
“Definitely, our new trucks are more fuel efficient by at least 25 percent,” he said. “Also some states are allowing heavier weights, which means we can get more calves on the truck, with the exception of Texas.”
Schwartner and Friend have also noticed mortality rates decline in cattle transport.
“It’s a little better, there’s better air circulation, it’s more streamlined and there’s more floor space per calf, Schwartner said.
“Most of the high costs involved with shipping cattle is because of increased health issues, feed yards have a good sense of what’s happening,” said Friend. “From my standpoint, we’re impressed. Most people recognize reduced stress means reduced health issues and healthy beef is a good thing and there’s an incentive to bring ’em to the table.”