Beef Issues Quarterly Archive

Transportation Issues Impacting Cattle Well-Being in the U.S. and Considerations for the Future

by Jason Ahola, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Beef Production Systems, Colorado State University; Lily Edwards-Callaway, Head of Animal Welfare, JBS USA LLC ; Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, Senior Scientist,  Agriculture Canada; Dan Hale, Professor, Texas A&M University;  and John Paterson, Executive Director, Education, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association,  a contractor to the Beef Checkoff


Consumers want to understand how food animals are raised and feel confident that the animals had a good quality of life throughout all stages of the production cycle. They often look to retailers to provide them with assurances that best management practices are being followed.


In May 2015, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, in coordination with Colorado State University and the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, held a symposium on cattle transportation for industry experts and stakeholders to discuss animal well-being issues, research and solutions that relate to cattle transportation. The goal of the symposium was to provide clarity regarding the current state of the industry and the future of cattle transportation in the United States. 

Participants reviewed past research findings regarding transportation, examined existing materials being used for educational purposes among transporters and cattle producers, and heard industry representatives discuss hurdles that must be overcome in order to improve cattle transportation and implement a cattle transporter training program that could be implemented nationally.


Almost all beef and dairy animals are transported at least once in their lives and often, more than once. For example, feeder calves might be transported from a farm or ranch to a livestock auction market, order-buying station, backgrounding facility, pasture as a stocker, feedyard and finally to a beef processing facility. In this scenario, the calf could be transported six times during its life. Market cows and bulls are also shipped to numerous locations and often across long distances. They could be transported to a livestock auction market, a cattle-buying station and finally a beef processing plant.  This does not include multiple short-distance transports between pastures within a single farm or ranch. A recent survey conducted as part of the BQA program found that the mean distance traveled by feeder calves to Texas and Nebraska feedyards was 468 ± 415 miles. Additionally, the 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit reported that the average tractor-trailer load of beef cattle arriving at the beef processing plant traveled 472 miles, while dairy cattle traveled 227 miles.

Researchers have reported that loading conditions, time in transit, weather conditions, comingling, segregation of different sexes and weight classes into separate trailer compartments, driver experience, animal nutrition, health status and physical condition are all major factors which must be considered when transporting cattle (Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al., 2012 and Coffey et al., 2001).

Shrink is a normal occurrence in cattle that affects both the seller and buyer, and a few hours to more than 30 days are required to replenish this weight loss. Shrink is not only a loss of gut fill but also actual tissue loss, which can exceed 60 percent of total body weight loss. High ambient temperature, extra and rough handling of cattle significantly increased the amount of shrink incurred by cattle. In a recent study, Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al. (2012) reported a cause-and-effect relationship between using best management practices (BMPs) for transporting cattle and optimizing cattle welfare and economic results. If following BMPs could result in a 1 percent reduction in shrink, among the more than 28 million feeder cattle shipped at least once in the U.S., there would be a result in a savings of more than $325 million in value at the feeder calf level. While hypothetical, this example demonstrates potential economic benefits to the cattle industry from using BMPs for transporting cattle. 

Effects of Transportation Stress on Cattle

Several factors – alone or in combination – determine welfare outcomes during transport and include loading density, transport duration, trailer design and ventilation, driving and handling quality, road and environmental conditions, and fitness of the animals. From an animal welfare perspective, the total duration an animal is transported is more important than the total distance it travels. The entire transport duration an animal experiences includes waiting to depart from the point of origin after loading, driving and stationary periods, waiting to off-load, and any delays occurring during the journey. Currently, little is known about the cumulative transport duration of cattle that are sold through markets or auctions. 

Tarrant et al. (1988; 1992) found that stress indicators in plasma, such as cortisol and glucose, increased linearly as loading density increased in transported steers. Appropriate loading densities for different categories of cattle (calves, feeders, feds, culls, etc.) transported under varying environmental conditions (winter vs. summer) are required. Studies of this nature are needed and would aid in defining optimal loading densities that ensure good welfare, meat quality and commerce.

The trailer environment has been identified as having the greatest impact on animal welfare during transport (Mitchell and Kettlewell, 2008). In North America, transport trailers are ventilated passively via perforations in the aluminum walls of the trailer as well as openings in the roof. Consequently, the potential to have poor welfare outcomes is significant, especially under extreme environmental conditions. During summer transport of feeder cattle, Goldhawk et al. (2014) found that the outside temperature had more effect on the trailer environment than loading density. Trailer environment can be affected by numerous factors including ambient temperature and humidity, loading density, use of bedding and airflow.

Handling stress has been shown to vary with such factors as animal temperament (Burdick et al., 2010), handling quality (gentle vs. rough), experience of the handler and animal (Lay et al., 1992a,b), the animal’s condition, and the quality of the handling facilities (Grandin, 2001). Currently, science-based information regarding the relationships between animal type (age, size and condition), temperament, and animal and handler experience as they relate to transport are limited. More research is needed to provide better clarity as to the BMPs for transporting cattle. Studies focusing on loading density, weather and trailer environment, and transport distance and duration, could certainly provide insight into more appropriate management and animal handling techniques during the transportation phase of the cattle production cycle. Results would be included in future training and certification materials.


What is Next?

End-product users, including large foodservice entities and packing companies, are demanding one uniform transportation quality assurance system for cattle with accountability to address and reduce cattle transportation-related welfare concerns.  In order to satisfy these demands, the cattle industry will need:

  • Sound research data, likely including a nationwide benchmark audit with built-in follow-up audits to enable continuous monitoring of transportation parameters and animal-based outcomes,
  • Development of robust, uniform, consistent, and agreed-upon guidelines for animal handling and transport via widespread input and buy-in from cattle producers, industry organizations, transportation companies, auction markets, packers of all sizes (including those focused on market cows), and end-product users,
  • Education of cattle transportation employees in all segments of the value chain about guidelines,
  • Implementation of one cattle transporter quality assurance program specifically for individuals who transport cattle or are involved with transportation processes that provides the ability for verification of certification via an online database and certification number.

The beef industry must be able to show commitment to a transporter training and certification program which includes a practical and robust verification process that can be used throughout the supply chain. 

Additional Resources

  • Beef Quality Assurance website
  • Coffey, K.P., Coblentz, W.K., Humphrey, J.B. and Brazle, F.K. (2001) Basic principles and economics of transportation shrink in beef cattle. Professional Animal Scientist 17, 247–255.
  • Burdick NC, Carroll JA, Hulbert LE, Dailey JW, Willard ST, Vann RC, Welsh Jr TH and Randel RD (2010). Relationships between temperament and transportation with rectal temperature and serum concentrations of cortisol and epinephrine in bulls. Livestock Science 129: 166–172.
  • Grandin T (2001). Perspectives on transportation issues: the importance of having physically fit cattle and pigs. Journal of Animal Science 79: E201–E207.
  • Goldhawk C, Crowe T, Janzen E, Gonzalez LA, Kastelic J, Pajor E and Schwartzkopf-Genswein KS (2014). Trailer microclimate during commercial transportation of feeder cattle and relationship to indicators of cattle welfare. Journal of Animal Science 92: 5155–5165.
  • Lay DC, Friend TH, Bowers CL, Grissom KK and Jenkins OC (1992a). A comparative physiological and behavioral study of freeze and hot-iron branding using dairy cows. Journal of Animal Science 70:1121–1125.
  • Lay DC, Friend TH, Grissom KK, Bowers CL and Mal ME (1992b).Effects of freeze or hot-iron branding of Angus calves on some physiological and behavioral indicators of stress. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 33: 137–147.
  • Mitchell MA and Kettlewell PJ (2008). Engineering and design of vehicles for long distance road transport of livestock (ruminants, pigs and poultry). Veterinaria Italiana 44: 201–213.
  • Schwartzkopf-Genswein KS, Faucitano L, Dadgar S, Shand P, González LA and Crowe TG (2012). Road transport of cattle, swine and poultry in North America and its impact on animal welfare, carcass and meat quality: a review. Meat Science 92: 227–243.
  • Tarrant PV, Kenny FJ and Harrington D (1988). The effect of stocking density during 4 hour transport to slaughter on behaviour, blood constituents and carcass bruising in Friesian steers. Meat Science 24: 209–222.
  • Tarrant PV, Kenny FJ, Harrington D and Murphy M (1992). Long distance transportation of steers to slaughter: effect of stocking density on physiology, behaviour and carcass quality. Livestock Production Science 30: 223–238.

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Fall 2015, Trends Analyses

September 26, 2015