Many thanks to the Birdwell and Clark Ranch, Henrietta, for providing photos from one of their cattle shipping days at the ranch.
Road Map for Selecting a Livestock Transporter
By Susan Turner
On any given day in North America, hundreds of thousands of livestock move up and down our highways and private roads. Some of those numbers may have loaded on your farm or ranch. The opportunity to capture economic gain, add value or ensure animal welfare makes livestock transport an acceptable risk. Once the trailer gate is closed, it is a mistake to think our job is done. As livestock producers, the burden of responsibility falls on our shoulders to see that fit animals are loaded and safely delivered. A big part of that responsibility means careful consideration of the livestock transporter you hire.
USDA established the 28-hour rule in 1873, laying out the first guidelines for humane transport of livestock. Through the years, improvements in equipment, experience, and industry-guided regulations have done much to advance modern-day transport. Safety for livestock and the people who handle them have become a higher priority, as has meat quality, biosecurity, and the positive perception of production agriculture by the general public.
Today’s livestock haulers are professional drivers who are expected to have proper training. Drivers are expected to be dependable, courteous, and knowledgeable of equipment operation and livestock handling. Recently, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program has stepped up to address the transportation sector of the beef industry. Though not a requirement, BQA Transport training is available for either Farmer/Rancher certification or Professional Driver certification.
The bottom line of ownership has always recognized the economic benefit of delivering livestock efficiently and humanely. According to www.bqa.org, “Transportation quality assurance plays a critical role in the health and welfare of cattle. The proper handling and transport of cattle can reduce sickness in calves, prevent bruises, and improve the quality of the meat from these animals. By using best practices, transporters can save the beef industry millions of dollars each year. When a transporter participates in the program, they are showing consumers they are ready to take every step possible to keep cattle as healthy and safe as possible.”
In addition to economic concerns, today’s livestock industry has a much more heightened awareness of public perception of animals-in-transit well-being as a reflection on the industry. For consumers, who are less connected to agriculture and animal husbandry, loaded big rigs, straight decks or even 16-foot bumper trailers sharing our roadways are the balance on which humane treatment of livestock is weighed. Fortunately, the same best practices that ensure humane transport ensure the greatest personal and industry reward.
Key areas addressed by BQA Transportation
- Cattle handling guidelines
- Hot/cold weather factors
- Mobility scoring fit/injured/weak cattle
- Biosecurity and Emergency Action Plan
The satisfactory rating of a livestock carrier is driven by the understanding that the cargo on the bill of lading represents a customer’s livelihood. Beyond the realm of most shippers, livestock customers are stewards of how the product from their factory is shipped.
Billy Easter, operator of Wichita Livestock Auction in Wichita Falls, hires hundreds of transporters every year.
The destination might be a ranch along the Red River or operations in Missouri, Kansas, or the Texas Panhandle. He hires trucks to move the cattle purchased through his sales, but he also arranges transport for producers delivering cattle to his auction facilities.
Hiring dependable transporters takes diligence and owning the responsibility. Easter has built a reputation for being able to set good drivers in front of the chute. When cattle are delivered, he gets lots of compliments from the other end of the line. Easter is fortunate to have a solid list of local drivers he knows he can rely on. His extensive experience has given him a checklist of qualifications that put a driver’s phone number on his list. “It is always best to work with drivers you know,” says Easter. “I like to hire local drivers with whom I have an established working relationship. They know what I expect. I know I can depend on them to be on time and to know their job. They are courteous, professional, and load the cattle like they need to be loaded. They understand if there are unexpected delays at the load site, and they take care of the cattle once loaded.”
Hauler is different from driver
Being a professional truck driver does not translate into being a professional livestock hauler.
Professional livestock haulers know how to handle livestock.
The first hour on the road requires the most diligence. Livestock are getting their footing and getting accustomed to the movement of the trailer. If animals go down due to sudden stops or taking corners too fast, it can mean injuries or lost time on the side of the road getting them up.
“I have worked with drivers who have hauled other kinds of freight, but they did not know how to care for cattle,” says Easter. “When the drivers who haul for me pull out, they check to be sure everything is good, and they check on the cattle down the road.”
Easter knows his job is not done until the cattle arrive at their destination. “I expect drivers to get where they are going without making unnecessary stops. They are to call or text me upon arrival.”
No matter how well a driver plans his trip, unforeseen challenges are part of hauling freight, but seldom are they more critical than when hauling live animals. Easter says the drivers he works with can be depended on to deal with unexpected circumstances and still keep the care of livestock on the trailer their priority.
Many driver qualifications are on display before any livestock go up the chute. David Neal, ranch manager for Powell Herefords of San Angelo, stresses that drivers who are drowsy or have obviously been on the road too long are not acceptable. Trailers need to be clean, and the further the haul, the cleaner the trailer needs to be. Manure means slippery floors and added weight.
Knowing how to handle livestock ranks as one of his main driver qualifications. “I can tell pretty quickly if a driver knows how to handle stock,” says Neal. “All livestock should be handled in a quiet manner, and only animals that are 100% fit should be loaded on a trailer.”
In addition to shipping cattle, Neal has experience transporting sheep and goats. Knowing the techniques of loading and transporting different species is critical, saving precious time and added stress on the livestock. Neal knows that things do not always go as planned. That is when good judgment, good equipment, and good stockmanship skills kick in.
A key factor in transporting live cargo is the timing of delivery. “I hire a driver I can depend on to deliver timely,” says Neal. “When traveling long distances, my drivers load at night, then deliver at daylight so they are at the front of the line to unload. That way those cattle are not held on the trailer for an extended length of time. Hauling in the cooler night air is also a benefit during hot weather.”
Order buyer Ray Etheredge hires drivers willing to go the extra mile. “I need a driver who will be there when I tell them to be, with a clean trailer and a good truck,” says Etheredge. “The driver needs to have a full understanding of who they are working for, and they should have the customer service skills to keep my business.”
Etheredge lines up cattle transport year-around. Like any other business, there are dozens of details behind the most visible part of the job — that loaded transport moving down the highway. A number of areas must be documented, including licenses, inspections, certifications, overweight permits, bills of lading and cargo insurance.
“I will not load a truck that does not carry cargo insurance,” says Etheredge. “If I ship half a million dollars in cattle, I want that covered in case of any loss. I am not paid for my services until the cattle are unloaded, so there must be something in place to cover the risk.”
Drivers under the influence of any substance are not eligible to load for Etheredge. “One of the best laws ever passed was mandatory drug testing to receive a Commercial Driver License.”
For Etheredge, communication is key. He stays in constant contact with his drivers. “My drivers call me the minute they are loaded. They give me a headcount and the weight of the load. Then they call me if they are delayed and immediately upon arrival. They give me their headcount, weight, and mileage, and I can tell if they made a 17-hour trip out of a 14-hour trip. Breakdowns and traffic are unavoidable, but there is a reasonable window in which the cattle need to be delivered. I can tell by the condition of the cattle when they arrive whether the trip was a good one or not.”
Specific things to avoid when hiring transporters
- Lack of communication
- Trailers covered in manure
- Poor equipment — unreliable trucks, trailers with sharp protrusions or weak ramps/floors/gates
- Poor driving skills
- Drowsy drivers or drivers under the influence of any substance
- Failure to possess proper licensing, permits, health certificates or proof of insurance
- Lack of knowledge of state and federal laws
- Failure to know weight limits or how to properly distribute weight on a trailer
- Lack of livestock handling skills
- Inattention to the loading process or failure to follow the instructions of the livestock owners for whom they work. While it is ultimately the responsibility of a driver whether an animal is fit for transport, within proper weight distribution and humane practices, a driver is expected to load the animals to the satisfaction of the owner or his representative.
Your livestock represents a substantial investment. Whether calves weaned in the fall or yearlings loaded off wheat in the spring, when shipping time comes, it is a relief to get them on the truck. But the job does not end there.
As participants in the production of perishable cargo, our stake in the industry includes the manner in which they are loaded and hauled and the condition in which they arrive. Unless we are the driver at the wheel, it means hiring a transporter who can be trusted to do the job right. “We need quality people in every spot,” says Neal. “We can do everything right, and any person on the totem pole can mess the whole thing up. Good economic practices and good livestock handling go hand in hand.”
Road Map is excerpted from the September 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.