Most ranchers can recall a few instances where shipment day, for whatever reason, didn’t go as planned. But what usually determines success of the trip is the preparation beforehand.

Woolsey cassidy
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho
Cassidy is a contributing editor to Progressive Cattle and Progressive Forage magazines.

A heavy hauling day may consist of a lot of waiting, for the brand inspector, to be exact. On those occasions, time is money for all the workers involved. Truckers and calves are all restless and raring to go.

Everything else may have been in place, but it was that small mishap that added to trucking expenses and a day’s worth of stress in both the crew and the calves.

“Sometimes it is the little things that are easily overlooked that can cause the biggest problems,” says Warren Rusche, a cow-calf field specialist at South Dakota State University. “That is why good preparation is so important.”

Ideally, we want this process so the calves aren’t standing around and waiting, Rusche says. As soon as we can get the calves gathered and sorted, they need to be loaded. The longer they are waiting, the greater increase in shrink and stress, which can open them up to problems like respiratory disease and other illnesses.


“Preparation becomes even more important with a year like this where calf values are unprecedented,” he says. “We need to consider things like: Do we have the right people in place doing the right jobs? Do we have the right equipment and facilities? Are they the right size?”

Shipment day is not the time to realize there was a miscommunication or to discover that some things needed to be fixed, Rusche says. It is important that everything is in order beforehand to avoid those unnecessary frustrations and economic losses.

Minimizing stress in the calves
Stress usually starts with the gathering and the sorting of cattle, says Ron Gill, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension livestock specialist. If they are stressed during the gathering and sorting process, it will carry over to the loading and transporting end.

Understanding cattle behavior is key to reducing stress, he says. If we understand the reason why they react a certain way or do certain things, there is no need to force them to do what we want.

Depending on the skill level of the people involved, the handlers that are more adept and understand cattle behavior should be put in charge. Everyone needs to be able to handle calves in a quiet and calm manner.

“Often times not everyone involved is on the same page. The more we understand the whole process, the better. We will have fewer people in the wrong position, saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move,” he says.

Taking simple steps such as moving a barking dog away from the chute, having the right people at the right job or limiting the use of prods, especially electric prods, can ultimately pay off in the end.

There are low-stress cattle-handling methods that can be put into play to help handlers reduce stress. These practices depend on handler position, movement and no use of voice. These methods will reduce stress more than any other way, Gill says. But as long as we learn to slow down and understand cattle behavior, stress can be reduced.

When should we wean calves?
We should also think about weaning calves at least 45 days prior to the haul, Gill says. Many operations use the truck as a weaning tool; however, if the right facility is available, weaning at least 21 days (45 days is preferred) ahead of shipping time can significantly reduce stress.

Early weaning essentially allows their immune system to fully recover from the stress of weaning and provides the time for calves to learn to function without their mother. Any pathogens they were exposed to can be fought off before they are moved to a new location.

Weaning on shipment day adds significantly to stress, which compounds the stress involved with loading calves into the trailer. The time it takes to separate cows and calves also limits their feed and water intake by two to three days and adds stress to their separation anxiety.

“These type of calves are of the highest risk of stress and sickness,” he says. “A lot of times we are piling stress on top of stress; if we can wean ahead of time and implement an appropriate vaccination program, we are doing the best things that we can do.”

Setting the calves up for success
Anne Burkholder, manager of Will Feed Inc., a 3,000-head cattle-finishing facility in Cozad, Nebraska, stresses the importance of vaccinating calves prior to shipment day.

“I always tell people you wouldn’t send your kid to kindergarten without giving them their shots and making sure the logistics are in place so they have a good experience,” Burkholder says. “Even though your calf is not your child, it is very much the same. You want your animal to be prepared to be able to handle the stress you know is coming.”

She suggests that calves at least have a modified-live respiratory vaccination, Pasteurella shots and at least one seven-way shot before they leave the ranch. She also encourages ranchers to work with their veterinarian to develop a vaccination plan so calves are prepared for the next stage in the production cycle.

“The beauty of the beef industry is that there is always room for improvement,” she says. “There is a lot of things we can do to set our animals up for success; it is just a matter of taking the time to be careful and to plan and to do all the things right.”

Plan ahead to follow stocking density guidelines
The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program has a chart available to use as a reference when loading cattle. The chart shows, based on weight and trailer size, the number of cattle that can be loaded into a particular trailer.

These numbers should not be exceeded in order to maintain a safe and successful trip. If the recommended amount is exceeded, calves won’t be able to reposition or rest. However, if the amount is less than the BQA recommendations, the load may shift too much during transport, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

“Everyone is trying to save money – fuel is expensive and trucking is not cheap. But trying to overload trailers by 20 percent to save a little bit of money could increase stress, shrink and possibly injury. It would probably be better to hire one more trailer so we don’t overcrowd,” Rusche says.

Stress won’t be eliminated, but improving certain procedures such as handling and loading can help keep stress levels to a minimum.

“A lot of this is just planning ahead and thinking through what needs to be done,” Rusche says. “If we thought of every single one of these calves as a stack of $1,500 bills, we would probably handle them a little differently.  end mark

Calves coming down chute. Photo by Paul Marchant.