America is a big country, and the road trip has become a traditional fixture in  American culture. The road trip also is a routine event in our beef industry, with cattle in all 50 states moving through sale barns to remote grazing operations and feedyards and eventually to processing facilities. 

Tim O’Byrne, owner of Calico Beef Consulting of Las Vegas, works closely with the trucking industry and with livestock producers to identify and resolve challenges in livestock transport. “The first points I like to make,” he says, “are that the beef-cattle industry is pretty much dependent on road transport.” He estimates that 7,000 semi-loads and another 2,000 to 4,000 gooseneck loads of cattle are on the road every day in the United States.

Due to the structure of the U.S. cattle industry, cattle typically move at least four times during their lives. Each of these trips is an opportunity for stress, Mr. O’Byrne says. And each person involved in loading and unloading an animal, typically about 15 different individuals from the ranch to the packer, is a potential source of stress. Mr. O’Byrne adds that he has tremendous respect for livestock haulers, and appreciates the challenges they face.

Recognizing the importance of quality-control in cattle relocation, several organizations have been studying the issue and developing instructional programs. NCBA, for example, is in the process of developing transportation guidelines as part of the Beef Quality Assurance program.

Kansas State University recently conducted a survey of livestock haulers in Kansas. K-State veterinarian Mark Spire says 53 percent of respondents indicated that their companies provide animal-handling training, while 47 percent do not. Of those without training, 50 percent indicated they would be interested in learning more. These results helped direct K-State specialists in developing a series of educational materials addressing transport issues.

The survey also asked truckers to identify the most common problems they encounter when handling cattle. The question allowed more than one answer, and poor facilities came out on top (see graph) at 71 percent. Nearly 68 percent of respondents cited poor lighting, and 41 percent said too little help is a common problem, Dr. Spire says. Inexperienced help was a common problem (27 percent), and in about 17 percent of cases, too much help creates challenges for drivers.

People involved in livestock transport cite a list of challenges facing drivers and producers:

  • Scott Strano, livestock division manager for National Carriers of Liberal, Kan., says his drivers routinely load finished cattle at feedyards for delivery to packing plants. The driver often has to carry out the entire process of driving cattle from their pen and loading them onto the trailer.
  • Every feedyard is different, so drivers deal with unfamiliar gates and loading facilities. “I’d like to see the customers more involved in loading the trucks,” he says, noting that feedyard crews know the facilities and could make the process more efficient. National Carriers, he adds, employs experienced field managers who ride along and train drivers to handle cattle properly.
  • “Truckers sometimes feel pressured to load animals that are not fit for transport,” Mr. O’Byrne says. Some ranchers, sale-barn or feedyard operators will tell truckers to “take it or we’ll find someone else who will.” Animals that are sick, injured or too weak to withstand the trip need to stay where they are. “It is the producer’s responsibility to sort and tender only cattle that are fit for transport,” he says. “When drivers reject questionable animals, producers should respect their position.”
  • Customers also sometimes pressure drivers to exceed the hours of service allowed by law, Mr. Strano says. “They’ll want calves hauled from Florida to Kansas. When we tell them the driver will need to stop and unload the cattle along the way, they say they’ll find a carrier who will drive straight through.”
  • Biosecurity is a growing concern, and yet truckers face a shortage of facilities for washing out their trailers.
  • Truckers sometimes have trouble with expeditious offloading at packing plants when the plants schedule more deliveries than they can handle. Some plants, Mr. Strano says, lack adequate holding pens, meaning cattle spend extra hours on trucks.
  • Some loading facilities, particularly at ranch operations, are inadequate, Mr. O’Byrne says. Mr. Strano agrees, but says his drivers typically get more help from ranch crews than they do at feedyards, which helps compensate for the facilities.
  • Producers sometimes do not have their cattle ready for loading when the trucks arrive. “Respect the drivers’ time,” Mr. O’Byrne says. “Time spent waiting for ranchers to gather and sort cattle for shipping is a financial loss for drivers.”
  • Producers need to be right on their head counts and reasonably accurate on weights. Discrepancies between the number tendered and the actual number loaded can cause disputes later. Sometimes owners will underestimate weights, or try to fit a few more head on the trailer to save money, but the practice is unfair to truckers who end up paying the penalties for overloaded trucks.
  • Producers can help prepare their cattle for the relocation process by using good handling techniques on the ranch. In particular, ranchers should familiarize cattle to people on foot. Cattle that have only seen people on horseback or on four-wheelers can respond negatively if the first people they see on foot are the ones trying to load them onto a trailer.

Education and training for everyone involved in cattle transport is critical for assuring good practices and protecting animal health and beef quality. For that reason, Mr. O’Byrne and Mr. Strano say they strongly support efforts such as the Kansas Transport Initiative and NCBA’s Cattle Transport Quality Assuranceprogram. The pool of qualified drivers with cattle-handling skills is shrinking, Mr. Strano says. Detailed, standardized guidelines covering all aspects of the transport process, he notes, will provide a great tool for training and evaluating drivers.