by Tamara Scully

Transportation of livestock is a stressful event for the animals. Just ask Brianna the cow, a recent New Jersey escapee who either fell or jumped from a transport truck heading to the slaughterhouse. While events such as this aren’t common, the safety and well-being of cattle being transported – no matter the end destination – is an important concern for the livestock industry.

Before, during and after transportation, cows are exposed to a variety of stressors. Stress is additive, and transport conditions such as temperature, density, location on truck, duration of transport and body condition prior to being transported all play a role in determining the level of stress. If the stress is too intense, the animal arrives at its destination in a compromised or unfit – lame, non-ambulatory or dead – condition.

What are these stressors and can they be mitigated for better cow outcomes? Why do some cows survive transport with little lasting effects, while others arrive at their destinations unfit?

Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, senior research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, focuses on animal welfare issues. She shared research data and protocols for decreasing animal stress and preventing poor outcomes when transporting beef cattle in a recent webinar.

“Transport safety is really linked to animal research,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein, who has been involved in the study of transport welfare for the past decade or more.

Transport is stressful for even the healthiest cows. Cows have to be handled, may be put with unfamiliar cows, are in an unfamiliar environment, aren’t able to eat or drink and have to expend energy to maintain balance in a moving vehicle.

“It is a feat to maintain balance, even for short periods of time,” she said.

Researchers have examined many of these variables to determine the best management practices for cattle transport.

Stressed animal outcome

According to a Fact Sheet by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “the stress level of the animal upon arrival at a harvesting facility drastically affects the quality of the meat obtained from the animal. Meat from highly stressed cattle tends to be dark and tough, whereas cattle that are less stressed produce a much more desirable and tender product.”

Schwartzkopf-Genswein shared research that examined the final outcome of cattle that were being transported to auctions or slaughterhouses. The study assessed the number of cattle arriving in unfit or compromised condition, examined why these animals were so severely stressed and noted their ultimate fate.

Researchers visually examined animals as they arrived at their destinations in order to classify their condition. They also looked at age, sex, body condition and mobility score as well as other criteria when assessing the animals.

For those animals going to auction, 87 percent of the cows assessed as unfit went to regular slaughter, while only 40 percent of those deemed unfit upon arrival at Federal Canadian slaughterhouse were harvested for meat, she said. When arriving at a provincial slaughterhouse, more than 80 percent of the animals deemed to be unfit by researchers went to regular slaughter.

The study cited risk factors affecting the market pricing the prior week – higher pricing meaning more cull animals being sold, the density of the animals in the truck, the truck type, the weather and the distance as factors impacting the overall stress levels and final cow outcomes. In this study, between 69 and 98 percent of the total cows transported arrived in fit condition.

Animal characteristics

When producers are shipping cull cows, the odds are highest that they will arrive at their destination in a compromised condition, Schwartzkopf-Genswein said. The pre-transport condition of the animal leads to its inability to withstand further demands placed upon it by transportation. Cows in heavy lactation, older cows, calves and those with low body conditioning scores, lameness, injury or respiratory distress are at high risk for excessive stress during transport.

Other animals that are not able to withstand transport stress include those emaciated or dehydrated, those in shock, ones with suspected nervous systems disorders, those less than two days old and those who can’t stand independently.

“The most vulnerable types of animals are the culls and the calves,” she said, while feeders and fats were better able to withstand transport stress and arrive uncompromised. “Transport that animal before she just can’t handle the transport. It has to be in adequate condition to make the journey under the conditions of that transport.”

As for Brianna the cow, she was pregnant and gave birth 48 hours after her fall and subsequent rescue. Brianna and her calf are doing well and destined to live their lives at the Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue in Wantage, NJ. While it is often difficult to tell if a cow is about to give birth, Schwartzkopf-Genswein acknowledged, animals should not be transported if they are likely to give birth.

Transport conditions

Physiological indications of stress include high cortisol levels and several immune, pain and inflammation markers which researchers can measure. Behaviors of stressed cows are observable. They stop ruminating. Drool, increased respiration rates, falling, slipping or unwillingness to walk and other behaviors which are a “change from normal” are signs of stress.

Using both biological and physiological indicators, researchers have attempted to quantify transport conditions leading to stress. They found that being on the truck for more than 30 hours was when the cows’ shrinkage, or loss of body weight, peaked. This is significant because “all of that fluid has been lost. Now you’re getting into tissue loss,” she said.

The temperature on the truck also impacts shrinkage. Temperatures above 59 degrees Fahrenheit or below five degrees Fahrenheit cause shrink to rapidly increase. The probability of being compromised upon arrival increases rapidly after 28 hours on the truck. Driver experience can have some positive effect on shrink but does not offset poor loading decisions or transport conditions.

“Distance and time on the truck really can affect welfare outcomes or increase the poor welfare outcomes” of the cows, Schwartzkopf-Genswein emphasized.

The location of the animal in the trailer impacts their condition. The upper level, both the doghouse in the rear and the deck in the front, cause animals to suffer the most bruising. The next highest risk of bruising is in the back on the lower level. Positions in the back of the truck on either level undergo more severe movements than the deck, belly or nose. Brianna was somewhere on the upper level, so her ride would have been a bumpier one.

The density of the animals in the trailer can also impact the amount of injury from transport. Too little or too many cows can cause an increase in injury and stress. Researchers found that trailer loading densities greater than 1.5 meters squared, or less than .05 meters squared, resulted in cows more likely to become non-ambulatory or lame or to die.

While the exact conditions under which Brianna was transported are unknown, having a cow fall from the transport truck during transit is thankfully not a common occurrence. But it is a reminder that animal welfare during transport is an important part of any livestock business.

“Marketing always means we have to transport cows,” Schwartzkopf-Genswein stated. Overall, “poor cow condition at loading is the biggest risk factor in determining condition at off-loading.”