Are your cattle fit to ship?

Evaluate health, condition of animals before transport

Transportation plays an important role in livestock production. The most recent National Beef Quality Audit shows that cattle—beef or dairy—are transported at least once and up to six times during their life. Ensuring the health and welfare of these animals at each transport opportunity is a great responsibility. Proper handling and transport of cattle can reduce sickness in calves, prevent bruising and improve the quality of meat from these animals.

Fitness for transport is an important concept that applies to all cattle stages—from calves and feeders to cull cows and bulls—and can affect both animal and human safety. This live-animal evaluation is critical to deciding whether cattle are able to withstand the rigors of transport, including standing for long periods of time.

Each trip to the auction market, the next pasture, backgrounding or finishing feedyards, and other destinations is an opportunity to improve animal welfare through transportation and fitness-for-transport decisions. The checkoff-funded Beef Quality Assurance Transportation program was designed for guidance on these topics.

The following are a few important aspects to consider when determining whether cattle are fit for transport.

Evaluate cattle condition and history
Never ship an animal you do not think can withstand the rigors of transport or marketing. This includes extremely emaciated animals and cattle that are exhausted or dehydrated. Having a plan for caring for or humanely euthanizing a non-ambulatory animal should be part of your protocol, since these animals cannot be slaughtered. Always confirm animals have cleared drug withdrawal times before transporting them to sale or slaughter.

Prep the cattle
Provide cattle access to water up until they load onto the trailer, as it improves health in the short term and upon arrival. A modest meal within 24 hours prior to transport, especially for trips longer than four hours, has also been shown to improve cattle response during travel and at the destination. Duration of transport can have significant animal welfare outcomes, and preparing cattle for the trip can improve their response to transport stressors.

Watch the weather
In warmer months, temperature and humidity can burden or improve the transport process. Pre-trip planning can help ensure cattle are loaded or unloaded in a cooler part of the day. Another consideration for younger and smaller cattle is they will need different loading densities versus older cattle in warmer weather.

Move cattle slowly
Animal handling is an integral piece to cattle health, especially during transportation events. Moving animals in a low-stress, gentle and quiet manner reduces stress on the cattle during and after transport. Using acceptable handling tools as an extension of yourself when needed can improve the efficiency of cattle movement. These practices also reduce the risk of defects such as dark cutters, bruising and wasted product.

Be proactive in culling decisions
Many cows and bulls are culled due to a decrease in productivity or an illness such as lameness. When animals are culled proactively, these animals are in a comparatively healthier state with a slightly higher body condition and have less risk of becoming lame or going down on the trailer. Producers are encouraged to work to cull animals earlier in the disease process, as long as drug withdrawal times are met, so animals can safely make it to their final destination without the risk of being condemned.

Transportation can be one of the most stressful events for livestock animals. However, when transporting them in a responsible manner, you make the animals’ well-being and human safety a top priority. The most visible aspect of the livestock industry is when cattle are moved across the country on wheels every day. Each stakeholder, from the cattle owner to the transporter, should strive for responsible transport decisions.

-DR. JIM WHITE
Director of Nutrition
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