Cattle trailers need modifications to eliminate bruising to bigger cattle

From the September 2016 issue of Drovers.

Finished cattle have outgrown the equipment used to haul them. That’s the consensus of packers, truckers and feedyard managers, and now documented through research conducted by Kansas State University. The fact cattle are bigger has created a significant animal welfare and product quality issue, and an estimated industry-wide loss of $35 million due to carcass trim of bruised muscle on strip loins.

“As an industry, we knew the problem existed, but our research now shows us the cause and what needs to be done to fix it,” says Dan Thomson, Kansas State University veterinarian and an industry leader in animal welfare and beef cattle production.

The bruising cattle are experiencing prior to slaughter is due to the lack of adequate clearance inside most cattle trailers. Specifically, the vast majority of bruises to the strip loin—for both Holsteins and beef cattle—are believed to be created when cattle enter or exit the belly compartment of cattle transportation trailers.

"The good news is this is a fixable problem," Thomson says.

The Kansas State study conducted this past year was designed to explore the relationship between bruising sustained at unloading and carcass bruising in finished cattle.

“Our study showed that bruising occurred in 68% of carcasses,” says Tiffany Lee, Kansas State University veterinarian and PhD candidate. “A total of 11,419 bruises were observed in 10,308 carcasses, indicating that a number of carcasses had multiple bruises. The number of carcasses observed with no bruise was 3,123 of the 10,308.”

Trained observers visited three packing plants to record all potential bruising events occurring as cattle exited the trailer and subsequently, the prevalence and location of carcass bruises. More than half of the bruising was observed along the dorsal midline or topline (53.4%), while bruising on the right and left sides of carcasses was reported at 28.4% and 18.2%, respectively. 


“More than half of the bruising was observed along the dorsal midline or topline.” 

— Tiffany Lee, DVM, Kansas State University (Photo: Troy Smith)


The percentage of cattle experiencing bruising events exiting trailers occurred nearly equally at 21% to 22% at the three packing plants. Carcass bruises were found more frequently on steer carcasses than heifers and more frequently on Holsteins than on beef breeds.

The specific source of the bruising is the gate or opening into the belly compartment of the cattle trailers. Most cattle trailers on the road today have 56" of clearance through the gate into the belly. Once in the belly, the cattle have about 69" of clearance.

“Cattle today are just bigger,” Thomson says. He cites improved genetics that provide the animals more frame and more feed efficiency, and the fact the industry is feeding them to heavier end-points.

Cargill Meat Solutions followed up on the Kansas State data with their own evaluations.

Cargill intern Luke Sankey used a GoPro video camera this summer to observe and record more than 1,000 cattle entering and exiting cattle trailers to identify the impact points.

“Due to their height, the majority of Holstein steers we see coming into the plants today are likely to hit that gate,” says Casey Mabry, alliance manager for Cargill. “Beef cattle have a tendency to jump down into the belly from the ramp, and they are hitting that gate, too.”

The gate into the belly of cattle trailers, Mabry estimates, is a $35 million industry-wide problem.

“There are typically 15 cattle hauled in the belly of the trucks,” Mabry says. “Of those, 35% to 40% were bruised. That’s a significant value destruction, and it’s occurring on 12% of our total supply.”

Cargill sees an average of 2% of carcasses with bruises to the strip loin, which requires trimming of 5 lb. to 6 lb. of meat from the carcass’ most valuable cut.

“That strip loin becomes devalued because if we trim it we sell it as a No. 2 strip loin. Overall, trimming the strip loin is a $75 loss to the packer,” Mabry says. He estimates losses to the strip loin on 2% of Cargill’s total slaughter amount to an average loss of $1.50 per head for all the cattle they process each year. “For Cargill, that’s a potential $7 million deal, and for the industry it’s a potential
$35 million loss.”

But that $35 million loss only represents damage to strip loins. Significant trim losses are also found in the chuck, the top butt and other beef cuts. Thomson says total
carcass bruises create an estimated $4 to $8 per head loss for the industry. That would amount to $100 million to $200 million in losses. Certainly, such economic incentives encouraged Cargill to participate in the study, but it was not the only reason.

“We have a responsibility from a sustainable, moral and ethical standpoint to do everything we can to improve animal welfare,” says Mike Siemens, global leader of animal welfare and husbandry, Cargill. “We have identified an opportunity for welfare improvement and we are aggressively working with our industry partners to identify and implement a solution.”

"We have a responsibility from a sustainable, moral and ethical standpoint to do everything we can to improve animal welfare."

Chief among those partners capable of solving the bruising problem are the trucking companies and trailer manufacturers. Ward Carpenter, who operates Carpenter Trucking in Arapaho, Neb., with 25 trucks that haul cattle to Cargill, Tyson and JBS plants, says he’s already begun modifying his trailers.

“We’ve gone to over-height trucks, 13'9" tall rather than the standard 13'6",” Carpenter says. “We’ve dropped the floor 4", and those two modifications have added 6" to 7" inside the trailers.”

Carpenter, who uses Merritt trailers exclusively, says the modifications have allowed for a larger opening to the belly with less drop to the ramp. “The cattle are less likely to jump and they ride better in transit,” he says.

Rick Yost, with VY Trucking in Sterling, Colo., says he’s ordering new trailers with specifications designed to minimize bruising. “We just ordered two new trailers (VY Trucking uses Wilson trailers exclusively) with specs that gained 3" going into the belly,” Yost says. “We’ve already modified four trailers by moving the ramps into the trailers to gain 2".”

Both truckers say the modifications come at their expense, but they believe it’s in the interest of their business and the industry.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the wave of the future,” Yost says. “We have to keep our customers happy and we have a responsibility to handle the animals in a humane manner.”

While all parties are happy to hear such comments from representatives of the trucking industry, two significant hurdles will likely prevent a rapid solution to bruising from cattle trailers—cost and the fact most truckers use combo trailers designed to haul fed cattle and feeder cattle.

"It's the right thing to do, and it's the wave of the future."

According to Yost and Carpenter, the cost of modifying an existing trailer or ordering a new trailer with unique specs can range from $2,000 to $14,000 per trailer. That’s in addition to the $80,000-plus cost of a new trailer.

Kansas State research found fed and feeder cattle combination trailers produced 51% of the bruising events, while those trailers designed specifically for fed cattle accounted for 49% of bruising events. Not a significant difference, but in the combo trailers, more bruising events along the back were observed, while in the fed cattle trailers more bruising episodes in the hip and rib areas were observed.

Regardless of the trailers used, Carpenter believes the trucking industry will need to respond to the demands of the beef industry.

“We’re caregivers just like the feedyards,” he says. “We’re the last ones to have our hands on them before they reach the packer, so we must do our part to minimize bruising or anyanimal welfare issues.”

Cattle Bruising Preventable, K-State Study Shows

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