Cattle transportation in NAFTA times

Cattle and beef trade between the U.S. and Canada is big business on both sides of the border. Uncertainty surrounding NAFTA and trucking difficulties may put that at risk however.

With fall upon us, many producers are beginning to plan shipment of this year’s calf crop or moving cattle from summer pasture to crop residues, fall/winter pastures or to a dry lot. Each and every year, millions of head of cattle are transported from point A to point B. During this time, our bumper-pull trailers, gooseneck trailers or cattle pots are giant billboards for the cattle industry. 

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Because of this fact, we as cattle producers should be ensuring we are doing our part of shedding a positive light on the cattle industry by following best management practices when transporting our animals.

There are several important factors that should be considered when cattle are being transported, including loading conditions, time in transit, weather conditions, commingling, segregation of different sexes and weight classes into separate trailer compartments, driver experience, and animal health status and physical condition.

Shipping can be one of the most stressful times in a calf’s life. Greater amounts of stress on cattle during shipping may increase the percentage of shrink loss of the animal. If producers are able to reduce shrink by 1 percent, this alone could benefit the industry by more than $325 million. A past Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) survey indicated that feeder calves traveling to Texas or Nebraska feedyards traveled 468± 415 miles.

Furthermore, the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit and Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit found that the average load of fed cattle travels over two-and-a-half hours and more than 135 miles from the feedyard to the harvest facility, and market cows and bulls traveled over nine hours and more than 395 miles from their origin to the harvest facility. These results also found that the amount of space we are providing these animals during transit is falling short of animal handling recommendations for our larger animals.

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According to North American Meat Institute recommended animal handling guidelines, a 1,000-1,400 pound hornless animal should be provided 12-18 square feet of space. According to both audit results, fed cattle were allowed, on average, 12.2 square feet, and market cows and bulls were allowed 12.4 square feet.

The previous data provides insight on the long distances cattle travel, which could have negative impacts on cattle welfare and performance due to stress. The stress from shipping can have an impact on calves’ immunity and prolong the amount of time calves are off feed following shipping. With these disadvantageous effects related to stress, it is important that producers work to make the shipping process as stress-free as possible.

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There are several preshipping suggestions that have been made as a result of previous research. These include:

• Cattle are fed and watered within five hours prior to being loaded if the trip length is over 12 hours.

• Cattle being loaded for trips longer than four hours should be fed within 24 hours prior to loading.

• Cattle should be in good health and fit for transport.

• Cattle should be handled as little as possible and as gently as possible prior to transport.

• Cattle should receive a minimum of five hours of rest following 48 hours of transport.

One resource available to producers is the newly developed Beef Quality Assurance Transportation (BQAT) online training modules located at With over 2,000 BQAT certifications currently issued in Nebraska, these modules can help producers improve shipping methods and reduce stress on cattle during the shipping period. 

This resource provides checklists that shippers can work through to help make shipping cattle safe for both personnel and cattle. It also contains loading density suggestions for popular trailer layouts used in the industry. Taking time to work through the checklists prior to transport can save costs and headaches after the cattle are loaded. 

Another online resource available for producers is the National BQA channel located on YouTube. By searching the keyword “transportation,” several informative videos covering transportation can be found.

Finally, one important task that producers must work through when shipping cattle across state lines is the requirement for entry that each state animal health official prescribes.

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Producers have had to search through state regulations to ensure they meet all the requirements to transport cattle across state lines; however, a new feature offered at allows producers to enter the state of origin cattle are coming from and the final destination the cattle are being shipped. The website will then provide all cattle health requirements for transportation.

This feature is not only for cattle heading to the feedlot or inspected harvest facility, but producers can also use it for sales, exhibition, and show and rodeo stock. With this new resource, producers can easily find all the requirements to successfully transport cattle to all 50 states.

It is important not only to the producer, but also the industry as a whole, that cattle are humanely handled when transported. As mentioned, several resources are available for producers to review for more information on transporting cattle safely and in a humane manner. Producers should review these tools and resources to ensure they are following the best management practices when transporting cattle. Jesse Fulton, Nebraska Extension educator and director of Nebraska BQA

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