Every year, about 50,000 head of cattle come to Turner County Stockyard, most of them in stock trailers. Owner Allen Wiggins would like to give all of his customers the same message: "The first thing anybody needs to check is the floor of the trailer."
The Ashburn, Georgia, cattleman says over two consecutive weeks, he saw customers lose cattle that went through the trailer floor. "One of the calves was just scraped up," he says. "We had to euthanize the other one."
In addition to the trailer floor, he adds it's important to check braces holding that floor. They can rust and come loose, especially with 12,000 pounds standing on them.
Wiggins is lauded by Texas A&M extension beef specialist Ron Gill for those recommendations. Anytime this educator talks about Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Transportation, he stresses, "Start at the front of the trailer and go back. If the tires aren't what they should be, that can lead to breakdowns, and those are particularly dangerous in the heat."
He adds, "It is critical to check the hitch on a bumper pull or gooseneck. Check it anywhere it attaches. Check the latches, axles, springs and the flooring."
Gill and Wiggins say to check your truck, too, especially the tires. Make sure the lights are working on both the truck and the trailer.
It's important to make sure the floor on a cattle trailer is nonslip. Wiggins has a simple remedy: He nails a cattle panel to the wood floor of his stock trailers to give cattle better traction.
Extra bedding in trailers has its pros and cons, Gill explains. He notes shavings are hard to clean out of a trailer, and a thorough cleaning should be routine after every load. Despite the added mess, he recommends them for long hauls.
"It is better on the calves," he says. "Their feet and legs aren't as sore when they get there. Without bedding, they can get toe abrasions that can lead to abscesses, which are very difficult to treat."
Make sure you don't load too many cattle per trailer. Gill recommends a producer check the load-bearing capacity of tires and axles. Don't exceed the lowest number, or you're asking for a breakdown. For example, if your tires are rated for 12,000 pounds, and your axles are rated for 14,000 pounds, to be safe, don't go over 12,000 pounds.
A lot of problems can start at the point where cattle are loaded into the trailer. It's important to check the chute for protruding nails, broken boards, pieces of metal and wasp nests. Make sure it has a nonslip surface, too.
Width also matters. Gill says 36 to 40 inches wide is standard, but with too much room, cattle will jam and get bruised. So, adjust based on class of cattle, if necessary. For producers who have to use a headgate to load, Wiggins says to be careful with big cows.
"If she has to step straight up from the headgate into the trailer, she'll hit her back on the top of the headgate," he says. He recommends pulling the trailer up 2 or 3 feet so the gates can swing out on either side, creating panels. This way, cattle don't have to step up directly out of the headgate.
FEED AND WATER
It's a subject for debate when it comes to providing feed and water for cattle before a long haul. Gill says, "If they don't have access to water before they're loaded, they can get dehydrated. That's not good from an animal-welfare standpoint. However, if they have water and feed, they won't have access to a clean trailer."
For hauls over 12 hours, Gill recommends letting them have water. Wiggins says it is probably better not to give feed or hay before loading. Especially with a weak cow, a full belly will encourage her to lay down, and she may have trouble getting back up.
SORT BY SIZE AND TYPE
Different sizes and classes of cattle need to be hauled separately. Wiggins stresses when hauling cow/calf pairs, it's important to separate calves from their dams with a gate. This keeps the calves from getting bumped or stomped.
Keep similar types of cattle together, he adds. Haul thin cows with thin cows and weak cows with weak cows.
Gill adds it's best not to haul cows and bulls in the same compartment, or the bulls will ride the cows. Also, try not to haul mature bulls in the same compartment, especially if they fight in the pasture. And, don't load horned cattle with cattle without horns.
Even if you're hauling the same type and weight of cattle, Wiggins recommends using a cut gate in your trailer, so all the cattle don't crowd into the back of the trailer.
ADAPT TO THE WEATHER
Heat stress can be a serious problem for livestock during transport. When the heat index or a combination of heat and humidity is 75ËšF, beef cattle can suffer. If they are packed too tightly to get good airflow, it only adds to the problem
Heidi Carroll, South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist, recommends checking the weather at the starting point and the destination.
"In the Midwest, with the temperature variability in the fall, you can potentially have heat stress and windchill on the same trip," she says. "You may need to stop and adjust the vents in your trailer."
When cold is a concern, remember the moving trailer adds windchill. Even without it, rain and summer coats can put cattle at risk at temperatures as high as 59 degrees Fahrenheit. If the animals are dry and have their winter coats, they can stand temperatures down to 18 F without the moving trailer adding a windchill effect.
KEEP HANDLING STRESS LOW
While safe trucks, trailers and loading chutes are vital, Gill says loading the cattle is a huge part of the equation. He cites a study done by Extension veterinarian Ashley Stokes while she was at the University of Hawaii. It showed the most stressful part of transportation is when cattle are loaded and unloaded.
"You can't uncouple transportation from handling," Gill says, emphasizing, "Don't force them, scream, holler or use Hot-Shots. Be quiet."
He explains stress has at least two negative impacts on cattle, especially calves headed to a stocker operation or feedlot. It can suppress the immune system and lead to respiratory problems.
Also, Gill notes, stress causes cattle to urinate and defecate more. That comes out of the seller's pocket.
Low-stress handling and hauling also means bruising is reduced. If it is a finished animal or a cull cow headed straight to harvest, bruised meat has to be cut out and thrown away. But, Gill says it also impacts younger cattle.
"Bruising can compromise the immune system and can set up clostridial infections like blackleg," he explains.
Once you have the cattle loaded, Gill says to keep it slow around curves and when accelerating or stopping to avoid jostling the animals, and to prevent turnovers.
South Dakota's Carroll reminds producers that accidents affect more than the cattle being hauled.
"Transportation is the most visible part of the beef industry. If things go really wrong, and it hits a video, it can have a negative effect on the whole industry."
Editor's Note: Safe and humane hauling of cattle play such a vital role in the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program that there is a specific initiative just for transporters. The program covers cattle-handling guidelines and diagrams; checklists for loading and unloading, and hauling during hot or cold weather; hauling fit, weak or injured cattle; traveling; loading suggestions and worksheets; and biosecurity and action plans.
To register to become certified under the BQA program or to learn more about the initiative, contact your state coordinator. Go to www.bqa.org for more information.
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