In her role as Extension veterinarian at the University of Hawaii, Ashley M. Stokes, DVM, PhD, helps Hawaiian ranchers implement low-stress protocols for safely shipping their calves to the mainland.
In her role as Extension veterinarian at the University of Hawaii, Ashley M. Stokes, DVM, PhD, helps Hawaiian ranchers implement low-stress protocols for safely shipping their calves to the mainland.

We’ve all heard the expression: “We can put a man on the moon. So why can’t we…?”

A similar question might be: “We can successfully ship calves from Hawaii to the mainland. So why can’t we ship them from Kentucky to Kansas without them getting sick?”

The stresses associated with relocation, coupled with exposure to new pathogens, clearly challenge the immune systems of stocker and feeder calves.

However, research and experience show that preconditioning and on-farm weaning reduce BRD risk through the transition period. During the 2014 BRD conference in Denver, participants generally agreed that much of the BRD in feedyards and stocker operations could be eliminated through adoption of sound health and weaning practices at the cow-calf level. A striking example of that process in action involves calves that experience the longest haul of all — those shipped from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland for finishing.

While not among our biggest beef-cow states, Hawaii produces a significant number of feeder calves. According to the USDA’s Jan. 1, 2014 Cattle report, 68,800 beef cows produced calves last year. And virtually all of those calves travel to feedyards on the mainland for finishing.

Ashley M. Stokes, DVM, PhD, is an Extension and research veterinarian also now serving as interim associate dean and associate director of Extension at the University of Hawaii. In her Extension role, she has worked closely with Hawaiian ranches in developing and implementing health protocols to help ensure their calves fare well during the long sea voyage and remain healthy through receiving and finishing.

Stokes says the cattle industry in Hawaii has a long tradition, dating back to 1793 when Captain George Vancouver first presented cattle to King Kamehameha I as a gift. Organized cattle ranching began in earnest in 1847 when John Palmer Parker bought 2 acres of land for $10 from King Kamehameha I. Since that time, the beef-cattle industry has grown to be one of Hawaii’s largest agricultural industries.

Hawaiian ranchers have faced tough times, though, enduring drought, invasive pests, high production costs and competition from imported meats. The state’s cow-calf producers encountered a critical disruption and dramatic transition during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Hawaii’s three remaining major feedyards closed, leaving them with no local outlets for selling their calves.

Stokes says the industry quickly mobilized to explore ways to transport their calves to mainland markets. Several years later, Hawaiian ranchers, in cooperation with public and private veterinarians, continue to fine-tune their efforts to improve access to transportation and markets on the North American continent.

The process, as you might imagine, is not simple, and veterinarians have played key roles in developing systems to reduce stress and promote calf immunity.

Getting on board

Stokes says the Jones Act passed by Congress in 1920 prohibits the use of foreign vessels in transporting goods between U.S. ports. This includes the state of Hawaii and any U.S West Coast port. There are currently no U.S.-flagged livestock ships, thus Hawaii producers wishing to ship via livestock vessel are limited to shipping animals aboard foreign ships and only to foreign ports such as those in Canada and Mexico. International health requirements can be stringent, often imposing added costs for testing for various diseases.

So, besides shipping to foreign ports, Hawaiian producers have two options — shipping by air, which is prohibitively expensive, or shipping by sea using special freight containers known as “cowtainiers,” which can be carried on U.S.-flagged container ships.

Cowtainers, Stokes explains, are modified freight containers that have been equipped with waterers, feeders, special flooring, the ability to clean daily and windows. These containers have become the predominant method for shipping cattle to the mainland United States, so the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council’s (HCC) Animal Welfare Committee and Transportation Committee developed guidelines and protocols specifically for that shipping process.

Those guidelines include recommendations for preconditioning, dehorning, castrating, selecting cattle for shipment, health inspections, transport to and from docks, dock staging, loading and unloading, feed and water, and care during transport.

Most cowtainers have two decks and are divided into four compartments, with two on each level. The 40-foot container can carry from 50 to 80 calves, depending on their size. Total capacity is 30,000 pounds. A typical load is about 60 five-weight calves, with 15 in each compartment. Each compartment includes a common waterer and feeder. The waterers are supplied by a hose or a 250-gallon storage tank, and the feeders can accommodate 1 to 2 tons of feed. The containers are built with ample windows to provide ventilation and light. During shipping, the cowtainers are accompanied by an attendant who is responsible for feeding, watering and general care of animals.

Preconditioning

The HCC preconditioning guidelines state that all cattle need to be adequately prepared for the physical and environmental challenges that may be encountered during shipment. Cattle that are unable to withstand the rigors of transportation should not be shipped. Preconditioning programs should be tailored to each producer’s specific needs and may include nutritional conditioning, vaccinations, dewormers, preventative vitamin supplements and antibiotics. They also recommend preventative herd-health programs during the cow’s pregnancy, during calfhood and at weaning. These include completing preconditioning at least 30 to 45 days prior to shipment to achieve maximum benefit of animal-health products and decrease the additive effects of stress, particularly if castration, branding or dehorning is to be performed prior to shipping. Booster vaccinations should be administered no less than 14 days prior to shipment to ensure adequate time for the animal’s immune system to respond.  

The majority of Hawaiian producers, Stokes says, has embraced the concept of preconditioning and works with their veterinarians to develop and use good protocols. They are progressive and forward-thinking, and it was the producers who initiated the program through the HCC and with assistance from the university.

Stokes says many of the larger Hawaiian ranching operations retain ownership of their cattle through finishing, so they see the direct benefits of their preconditioning programs on health and performance. Also, many of the producers who do not retain ownership belong to the Hawaii Cattle Producers Cooperative Association, which requires preconditioning as part of its program for marketing and shipping calves to the mainland.

The guidelines also state that cattle should be conditioned to eat the type of feed they will be fed during shipment, such that they will come to the bunk and consume feed as soon as it is offered in the cowtainer. This can take several days to a week.

All cattle should be in good health and free of obvious signs of disease including diarrhea, lameness, pinkeye and respiratory disease, according to the guidelines. Managers should check cattle prior to loading to ensure fitness for shipping, and in most cases, cattle moving interstate are required to be inspected by an accredited veterinarian in accordance with interstate health requirements of the receiving state.

The guidelines also specify that cattle should be sorted into uniform-sized lots for shipping, and that handlers should minimize stress during trucking, loading and unloading and minimize time spent in cowtainers at the shipping and receiving ports.

A qualified, designated stocktender accompanies all of these shipments at dockside and shipboard. The stocktenders, vessel captain, dock managers and receiving facilities are responsible for ensuring that all cattle have access to feed and water at all times during the shipment process, and the stockhandler is expected to maintain a practical level of cleanliness inside the cowtainer.

Upon arrival in mainland ports, the cowtainers typically are loaded directly onto trucks for transport to grazing operations or directly to feedyards. Stokes says most calves are shipped at around 500 pounds and spend some time in West Coast stocker operations before finishing. This system, she says, helps minimize stress during this stage of transport for several reasons. The cattle, by this time, are accustomed to and comfortable in the cowtainers and have access to feed and water, sound footing and good ventilation during transport. Keeping them in the cowtainers eliminates the stress of unloading and loading onto conventional trailers and avoids further commingling.

Verifying minimal stress

Stokes and researchers in Hawaii, in cooperation with Iowa State University, conducted a study to evaluate long-haul shipping stress for cattle transported from Hawaii to the mainland United States. The researchers monitored two shipments of calves, one to California and one to Washington, using bi-level, four-compartment cowtainers. They installed instruments in each compartment to monitor temperature and humidity throughout the journey, and also fitted three heifers in each compartment with vaginal thermometers to monitor body temperature. 

They also collected blood samples from all the calves prior to shipment, upon arrival and six days post-arrival for analysis of physiological stress indicators including substance-P (a neurotransmitter that serves as an indicator of pain or stress), hematocrit percentage, white blood cell counts and differentials, and leukocyte levels.

The researchers found that body temperatures tended to rise above normal during stressful events, such as loading and unloading from cowtainers, but soon returned to normal. Substance-P levels increased between pre-shipping and arrival but returned to normal by six days after arrival. White blood cell counts showed no significant differences at any time through the shipping process. Hematocrit levels decreased from pre-shipment to arrival and post-arrival but remained within a normal range throughout. Microarray analysis demonstrated few gene expression alterations through the shipping process. Shrink from pre-shipment to arrival was 6.4 percent, but the calves compensated with 9.9 percent gain on pasture over the six days following arrival. The researchers concluded that beef calves shipped from Hawaii to the mainland United States using the preconditioning and shipping protocols for this study demonstrated few and transient physiological indicators of stress.

Practical results

As for practical evidence, Stokes has visited several mainland feedyards that receive Hawaiian calves and communicates regularly with their managers. Some Hawaiian ranchers ship their calves to the mainland without preconditioning or weaning on the ranch, and Stokes says the differences are apparent, with more shipping shrink and more sickness upon arrival.

Kevin Buse is the general manager at Champion Feeders, near Hereford, Texas. The feedyard procures cattle from a wide range of sources and locations, including, for the last 10 years, calves shipped from Hawaii.

Buse says the calves usually spend 10 to 14 days in the feedyard after being shipped from Hawaii and trucked to Texas from California. This period allows the feedyard crews to monitor the calves while assuring they are fully hydrated and consuming feed before turning them out on grass. The calves then spend four to five weeks on forage before returning to the feedyard for finishing. Some Hawaiian ranchers who send calves to Champion Feeders retain ownership, some partner with the feedyard and some sell them outright. Buse says he has great success with the partnerships, as they foster communications and exchange of information between the feedyard and rancher.

Buse says he has had excellent results with the Hawaiian calves, which he attributes largely to the treatment they receive prior to and during shipping. Their health and well-being is top-notch, he says, adding it is apparent from arrival that the calves have been well prepared for the voyage in terms of immunity, low-stress handling, acclimation to feed bunks and overall condition. Over the past 10 years, Buse has seen an evolution in the preparation and shipping methods employed for Hawaiian calves, and the results have improved significantly. Today, he says, calves he receives from Hawaiian ranches compare very favorably with those from the best mainland ranches in terms of health and performance in the feedyard. They are amazingly predictable. He adds though, that he works to procure well-managed, preconditioned cattle from the most progressive ranches, whether Hawaiian or mainland.

Buse has seen the contrast with calves of unknown history from small, part-time operations, and says that today, with cattle valued at around $1,500 per head on arrival, “you need to deal with people who can provide predictability.”