Much of the work you and your clients do on the farm to protect animal welfare and beef quality could be cancelled out by poor transportation practices.

Virtually all cattle in the United States are transported at least once, and most take several trailer trips, often as many as six times, as they move through marketing channels and between production systems. According to the 2007 Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit, funded by the beef checkoff, the average tractor-trailer load of beef cattle arriving at the beef processing plant traveled 759 km, and dairy cattle traveled 365 km.

Given the structure of the U.S. cattle industry, with distinct and geographically diverse cow-calf, stocker and feeding sectors and limited numbers of slaughter facilities, frequent transport of cattle likely will continue for the foreseeable future. And as the public increasingly demands assurances of animal welfare, transport practices represent a key opportunity for improvement. While research continues, veterinarians can use science-based information to help clients adopt best practices for cattle transport, and at least avoid some of the common mistakes that can threaten animal welfare and beef quality.

Recently, the journal The Professional Animal Scientist published a symposium report titled “Transportation issues affecting cattle wellbeing and considerations for the future.” The report, which summarizes the cattle transportation symposium held in Fort Collins, Colo. in May 2015, is authored by

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, PhD, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Jason Ahola, PhD, Colorado State University, Lily Edwards-Callaway, JBS LLC, Dan Hale, PhD, , Texas A&M University and John Paterson, PhD, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The goal of the beef checkoff sponsored symposium was to provide clarity regarding cattle well-being, research, the current state of the industry, and the future of cattle transportation in North America.

Research reveals opportunities

Schwartzkopf-Genswein, has conducted extensive research on cattle transport, stress factors and their effects animal welfare. Transportation, she says, involves a number of known stressors, including loading, unloading, an unfamiliar environment and co-mingling with unfamiliar cattle. Sometimes feed and water are restricted prior to shipping, and environmental conditions such as severe heat or cold contribute to stress. Cattle expend energy maintaining their balance on the trailer, meaning the duration of the trip and the driver’s skill level can influence stress.

In articles published in the Journal of Animal Science, Schwartzkopf-Genswein and her team report a number of transport factors associated with stress, injuries and potential loss of beef quality and cattle value. These include:

·       Shrink was greater for feeder cattle loaded at ranches/farms and feed yards compared to those loaded at auction markets.

·       Cattle loaded during the afternoon and evening shrank more than those loaded during the night and morning.

·       Shrinkage was lower in cattle transported by truck drivers having six or more years of experience hauling livestock compared to those with five years or less.

·       Shrink increased with ambient temperature and time on truck. Temperature and time on truck had a multiplicative effect on each other because shrink increased most rapidly in cattle transported for both longer durations and at higher ambient temperatures.

·       The rate of shrink over time was greatest in cull cattle, intermediate in calves and feeder cattle, and slowest in fat cattle. Cull cattle, calves and feeder cattle appear to be more affected by transport compared to fat cattle going to slaughter because of greater shrink.

·       Calves and cull cattle were more likely to die and become non-ambulatory during the journey, feeders intermediate, and fat cattle appeared to be the most able to cope with the stress of transport.

·       The likelihood of cattle becoming non-ambulatory, lame, or dead increased sharply after animals spent over 30 hours on truck.

·       The likelihood of animal death increased sharply when the midpoint ambient temperature fell below -15ºC while the likelihood of becoming non-ambulatory increased when temperatures rose above 30 ºC.

·       Animals that lost 10% of their body weight during transport had a greater likelihood of dying and becoming non-ambulatory or lame.

·       Animals were more likely to die at lower space allowances, which occurred more frequently in the belly and deck compartments of the trailers, and also at high space allowances in the deck.

·       The proportion of total compromised animals decreased with more years of truck driving experience.

·       Mortality was greater in cattle loaded at auction markets compared to feedyards and ranches.

·       Cull cattle, calves and feeders appear to be more affected by transport based on the likelihood of becoming non-ambulatory and dying within a journey.

Bruising remains a problem in finished cattle shipped to packing plants, and part of the reason appears to be the size of today’s cattle relative to the design of most pot-bellied cattle trailers. The symposium report authors note the 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit indicated that 63% of market cow carcasses evaluated had some level of bruising present at the time of slaughter, with the majority occurring in the round region. In carcasses from 4,287 fed cattle evaluated for bruising presence, anatomical location, and severity, Kansas State University researchers found that 53.5% of carcasses had at least one bruise and 60.5% of bruises were located in the central region of the carcass. Among carcasses with one bruise, 61.8% occurred along the dorsal midline, with over half occurring in the high-value rib–loin area.

Kansas State University researchers estimate the lost value in beef trimmed from loin cuts due to bruising at $35 million annually. Based on the locations of those bruises, researchers ruled out horns and several other potential causes and determined the primary culprit is inadequate overhead clearance when cattle move in or out of the “belly” compartment in the trailer. Most cattle trailers today have 56 inches of clearance over the ramp into the belly compartment, which is not enough for todays finished cattle, which average about 10% heavier than 15 years ago.

Horned cattle continue to cause bruising during transport, and continued emphasis on polled genetics could help reduce bruising and lost carcass value.

The report’s authors also note that handling practices during assembly, loading and unloading trailers play a large role in the stress level and overall welfare of shipped cattle. This might be the area where veterinarians can contribute the most, by helping train ranch, feedyard and dairy crews to use calm, low-stress practices for shipping and receiving cattle.

Based on previous research, the report’s authors suggest implementing these pre-transportation practices:

·       Cattle are fed and watered within 5 h before being loaded if the trip length is over 12 hours.

·       Cattle being loaded for trips longer than 4 h are fed within 24 hours of loading.

·       Cattle should be in good health and fit for transport.

·       Cattle should be handled as little as possible and as gently as possible.

·       Cattle should receive a minimum of 5 hours of rest following 48 hours of transport.

Uniform training and standards needed

Considerable discussion during the transport symposium focused on standardizing training, certification and audit programs for cattle transporters. The report’s authors note that in 2007 and 2008, the cattle industry, in cooperation with the National Beef Quality Audit Advisory Board, developed a cattle transporter certification program. Also, the Texas Beef Council and Texas A&M University developed the Master Cattle Transporter Program, offering educational resources to cattle producers and transporters including an online course, manual, DVD, and website with videos and downloadable resources.

The report’s authors note, however, that funding shortages have limited implementation of a national education and certification program for cattle transporters.

Several packers have created in-house policies or training programs for transporters entering their facilities to ensure proper handling of animals. But currently, the packing industry has not adopted any uniform cattle transporter training program for drivers entering their facilities. The authors encourage the industry revitalize the Master Cattle Transporter program and further develop a national cattle transport education effort. Specific recommendations include the following steps to address and decrease cattle transportation-related welfare concerns:

·       Sound research data, likely including a nationwide benchmark audit with built-in follow-up audits to enable continuous monitoring of transportation parameters and animal-based outcomes.

·       Development of robust, uniform, consistent, and agreed upon guidelines for animal handling and transport via widespread input and buy-in from cattle producers, industry organizations, transportation companies, auction markets, packers of all sizes (including those focused on market cows), and end-product users.

·       Education about guidelines for cattle-transportation employees in all segments of the value chain.

·       Implementation of one cattle transporter quality assurance program specifically for individuals who transport cattle or are involved with transportation processes, providing the ability for verification of certification via an online database and certification cards.