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The industry-wide significance of transporting fit animals

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 April 2021
Cattle truck

Transportation is an inherently stressful and rigorous process for all cattle to go through, regardless of what condition they are in.

There are a lot of unknowns an animal can encounter on the open road, making it crucial they are strong and sound enough to withstand the journey.

There are several factors each individual animal should be evaluated for prior to shipment. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program calls this overall picture “fitness for transport.” What is and is not acceptable according to these industry guidelines is something anyone who moves cattle any distance should know.

Not only is moving unfit cattle dangerous and inefficient, but it also causes undue stress, injury and potential losses that no one wants to see happen.

“With [transportation] being such a visible part of our production system, we want to make sure that we’re doing that responsibly,” says Chase DeCoite, BQA programs director. “We want to make sure [haulers and producers] are moving those cattle in the best way possible.”

Fitness for transport – what does it look like?

To address the specifics of welfare in transportation, BQA has a course and manual specifically on this topic. Some haulers and cattle companies require that employees involved with moving animals take the full course. DeCoite, however, recommends this program for anyone who trailers cattle, even if it’s just around the property or to the local sale barn.

Any time cattle are moved, he says, their fitness should be evaluated with a diligent eye. Not only do they need to be able to physically get on the truck, but they must also withstand the rigors of their final destination. Part of that, DeCoite notes, includes the total distance and how many times animals may need to unload and reload, such as is the case with sale barns.

While there are lots of specifics, the BQA transport manual keeps key practices relatively simple. These include transporting all cattle in a manner that minimizes stress, injury and bruising and to never knowingly inflict injury or pain on an animal in the loading, unloading or transportation processes.

Because hauling is a team effort, Dr. Renée Dewell, chair of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners’ (AABP) animal welfare committee, highlights the importance of proper training and written protocols for non-ambulatory animals and culling decisions surrounding transportation.

“Producers and haulers should be confident in identifying ‘special-needs’ or ‘compromised’ cattle,” she says, “such as those with mobility issues, low body condition score, or suspected or confirmed disease issues.”

Cattle with conditions that could cause them to become severely lame or non-ambulatory should not be moved or, at the very least, be transported in a separate compartment, according to Dewell. Likewise, cows close to calving or likely to calve during shipment should also not be moved.

Because many cull cattle are destined for slaughter, determining transport fitness must take the packing plant into consideration. Conditions posing a health risk to the food system, besides being contrary to animal welfare, are reasons to retain animals until they either recover or are euthanized. These animals are likely to be condemned at the plant and shouldn’t be sent to the sale barn either. For these reasons, it is typically in the producer’s best interest to cull sooner rather than later once the condition has progressed.

Dewell points to some of AABP’s specific guidelines, which include not shipping animals with cancer eye, fever and fractures or severe lameness. This category includes never shipping animals that have not yet surpassed any medication withdrawal periods.

“That’s a black eye not only for that producer but for our entire industry, if we’re sending animals that might have antibiotic or drug residue,” DeCoite adds. “We want to be sure those animals have a quality of life and are worthy of entering the beef supply.”

Thinking downstream

When unfit animals are pushed through the supply chain, someone will ultimately bear the burden of caring for that animal or even face a total death loss.

Justin Schaben, regional officer with the Livestock Marketing Association, says he finds many producers do their best to only ship animals healthy enough to go through the sale. But sometimes they do face fitness problems resulting from either oversight or accidents that occurred during transit.

“When an animal would arrive in that [unfit] condition, it’s identified right away by a market employee and sorted off,” he says. “Most of the time, they’re inspected by the vet on duty, and they make a determination with either the marketing manager or sale owner as to if that animal is fit for sale.”

In some cases, these animals will be shipped back to the original source or, if unable to withstand more travel, euthanized at the sale barn. To help prevent this, Schaben recommends that sellers pay close attention to animal health days in advance to the intended market date.

When appropriate, Dewell says an animal may be transported for immediate slaughter – provided they’ve surpassed any medication withdrawal periods and are free from neurologic diseases.

“Cattle and calves that are non-ambulatory should not be transported unless they are being taken to a veterinarian for evaluation or treatment,” she continues.

If, after veterinary consultation, an animal is deemed unlikely to respond to treatment and unfit to be transported, timely euthanasia should be pursued using AABP and American Veterinary Medicine Association guidelines, which Dewell notes are available at AABP’s website.

Good practices

When unfit animals are transported for any reason other than for veterinary evaluation or treatment, no one wins. While there are problems even healthy animals may encounter on the road, the best odds for a safe and successful movement lie in the hands of the original owner who decides which animals to put on the trailer.

When it comes to moving animals at loading and unloading, Dewell stresses the importance of utilizing low-stress handling techniques. Once on the road, haulers should be mindful of their movements and make the transit as short as possible to reduce illness.

“Avoid commingling higher-risk animals, such as young calves, as well as special-needs or compromised cattle,” she says. “These cattle and calves should be loaded last and unloaded first.”

In the case of sale-bound animals, Schaben notes that many sale barns and auctions are willing to assist cattle producers with specific guidelines.

“Most market owners are extremely good about going out on the farm and looking at the cattle with the producer,” he says. “We encourage all market owners and producers to make those contacts.”

Go online for more information on this topic and to download the BQA Transportation Manual. end mark

Getty Images.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.