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Safely transporting cattle includes a variety of factors that impact welfare

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Whether it be across the county or across the country, the act of transporting cattle is the single most stressful event in the animal’s life and can cause serious physical harm if proper precautions are not taken at the time of loading.  

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, research scientist at Agriculture Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, recently conducted a study regarding best practices of transporting cattle. 


“To market our cattle, they have to be transported,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “This is one of the most visible aspects of our industry, and having compromised and unfit cattle on a trailer for all to see is bad for the industry as a whole.” 

Schwartzkopf-Genswein’s study observed a number of stressors related to transport including handling, environment, auction, mixing with unfamiliar cattle, restriction of feed and water, conditions of the trailer, loading density, energy to maintain balance, transport duration and injury. 

“Both short- and long-distance travel can result in stress on the cattle, especially with loading and unloading,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “We want to recognize the potential stressors and assess the cattle before, during and after their travel.” 

Schwartzkopf-Genswein recommends conducting a “gate test” to visually assess the state of the cattle as they exit the trailer. 

“Some signs of stressors can be increased respiration or panting, as well the cattle lying as opposed to standing once they get off the trailer,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “Cattle will fail to ruminate as a result of stress, and their immune system can also be suppressed.” 

Time in transit

The amount of time the cattle are actually in transit on the truck can also have an affect on cattle.  

“There is a positive relationship between time in transit on the truck and shrinkage,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “Although it plateaus at 30 hours, this does not mean we should just keep going. At this point, cattle have exhausted all fluid, and there is a possibility for tissue damage.” 

“We also have to remember to count various times that the truck is stopped into transit times,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “Drivers are human and have to take breaks, some of which may be required by law. Then, there can always be various traffic issues, inclement weather, border stops or mechanical issues.”

Driver experience

Schwartzkopf-Genswein’s study also found a notable relationship between the driver’s years of experience and shrinkage. 

More experienced drivers delivered cattle with significantly less shrinkage than less experienced drivers or drivers who had little to no experience with hauling livestock. 

“Much like the data presented with trailer temperature, we were really not surprised that more experienced drivers could deliver cattle with less shrinkage,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. 

She continues, “Experience with driving in general, understanding the routes and knowing how to handle cattle in a crisis situation are crucial to delivering them in the best shape possible.”

Environmental conditions 

The environmental conditions both inside and outside the trailer can have major effects on cattle in transport.

 Schwartzkopf-Genswein says that unmoving trailers pose the biggest threat as the temperature rises substantially when there is no airflow through the vents in the trailer.  

“Our studies showed that for every degree Celsius the temperature rose, body shrinkage rose by 0.04 percent,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “There was also a positive relationship between hours spent on the truck, outside temperature and body shrinkage.”

“Unsurprisingly, temperatures in the trailer rise when it is not moving because there is no air flow,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “When shipping cattle a long distance, we must take into account delays such as driver rest, traffic and weather.” 


Schwartzkopf-Genswein found that cull cattle saw increased impact from being transported. 

“To observe the welfare outcomes on cattle, we divided them into four categories – lame, non-ambulatory, dead and totally compromised, which is a combination of the former three categories,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “The welfare of cull cattle was significantly more affected by transport than fats, feeders and calves. Culls doubled, if not tripled, every welfare category in comparison to their counterparts.”

“The transport of compromised or unfit cattle is a major welfare concern,” says Schwartzkopf-Genswein. “This can give our industry a very negative image, so these loading decisions are critical.”

Schwartzkopf-Genswein shared her work via webinar in November 2018 for the Beef Cattle Research Council. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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