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Tips for minimizing feedlot shipping stress

Doug Scholz and Nathan Meyer for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 September 2018
Cattle being shipped

As beef producers prepare to transition their cattle to the feedlot, reducing stress is something to keep top of mind.

Chances are, some of these animals have never even set foot on a trailer. Just that in itself is going to be stressful, and whatever we can do to improve animal welfare and reduce stress at this time will have a positive impact for you, your cattle, the feedlot operator and, in the end, the consumer.

Below are helpful stress-reducing tips and practices to consider when cattle are heading to the feedlot.

Before shipping

We believe that calf health starts with the dam. Vaccines given to the dam can help stimulate an immune response that will provide pathogen protection in the colostrum. It’s crucial to give the calf an adequate amount of this colostrum within the first 24 hours.

Additionally, a well-planned preconditioning program can help build a solid foundation for the future performance of a calf destined to enter a feedlot. A proper preconditioning program should involve quality forage and/or supplemental feed and nutrients; castration; dehorning; weaning; constant access to clean, fresh water; and introducing cattle to the feedbunk.

It should also include a vaccination program that protects calves against respiratory, digestive and other disease challenges, as well as a deworming program designed to control the types of internal and external parasites that may compromise the calf’s health status and ability to convert feed to gain efficiently.

We suggest producers vaccinate at branding or turnout to grass, and again around three weeks pre-weaning. Ideally, three to four weeks prior to shipping, cattle should be vaccinated for respiratory and clostridial diseases.

During shipping

Come shipping day, calves need to be loaded promptly. Having trucks lined up and using low-stress cattle handling is key to making sure the process moves swiftly for both you and the cattle.

Reducing strain on the animal is important because handling stresses can impact weight gain or reduce reproductive performance and immune function. Additionally, livestock move and react more predictably when they are calm and feel secure.

Large moving or flapping objects can make animals more difficult to handle and so can excessive yelling or hollering while handling and herding cattle.

What we’ve learned over the past 15 years in trying different handling techniques is if we work with cattle at their speed and not at our speed, they will go through facilities better and faster.

We recommend the following handling techniques:

  • Present a calm disposition.

  • Minimize the use of cattle prods. Use of appropriate driving aids, such as flags or rattle paddles, don’t cause a lot of stress, but they get the animal’s attention and keep them moving.

  • Both horseback and on-foot cattle handling can be effective as long as you’re consistent. Cattle feel more comfortable with what they’re used to.

  • Cattle are prey animals and they respond accordingly. If they see us as more of a trusted friend, and not a predator, then it decreases their stress overall.

  • Ensure animals are comfortable and not overstocked on the trailer.

  • Ship during times when weather is not inclement. Work with your trucker, the destination feedlot, backgrounder or stocker to change shipping times, if necessary.

  • The load-up ramps should be solidly constructed, with good footing. If they’re slick or if the cattle are not walking without sliding, it can increase strain on the animal.

At the feedlot

The ultimate goal when sending cattle to a feedlot is for them to be comfortable when they arrive. Unload cattle promptly and quietly into a pen that’s comfortable with plenty of space to lie down. Provide plenty of fresh, clean water and good-quality, palatable feed in the bunk.

It’s also recommended to give the cattle a chance to rest on arrival to help process them in a timely fashion. Recent research has demonstrated that we actually get a better immune response with delayed-arrival processing versus right off the truck.

Despite all the things we try to do, sometimes the weather throws us a one-two punch, and we’re left needing solutions. Treat those animals with a fast-acting antibiotic in a timely fashion, and work with your veterinarian to determine if respiratory disease control or treatment is appropriate for your operation.  end mark

PHOTO: It’s also recommended to give the cattle a chance to rest on arrival to help process them in a timely fashion. Recent research has demonstrated that we actually get a better immune response with delayed-arrival processing versus right off the truck. Photo by Ray Merritt.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Doug Scholz
  • Doug Scholz

  • Technical Marketing Manager
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
  • Email Doug Scholz



Nathan Meyer
  • Nathan Meyer

  • Professional Services Veterinarian
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
  • Email Nathan Meyer