by: Clifford Mitchell

Shipping day is an important event for most operations. Variable factors can play a role for the amount of stress placed on each operation during this time. Moving cattle around, planning trucks and determining value all lead to things that can weigh heavily on the mind of most ranchers.

Stressful dealings for cattlemen do not have to be transferred to calves getting ready to get on a truck for the next phase of their lives. Making a game plan to help limit these factors will help reduce stress and set calves up for an easy transition.

“Producers have to plan their shipping day months in advance. Buyers will know if you got those calves ready to be shipped,” says Dr. Justin Rhinehart, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Tennessee.

“Planning is a form of risk management. Pencil out a schedule know what you're going to feed them and get help lined up for the days you're going to need extra labor,” says Dr. Lawton Stewart, University of Georgia.

Pre-conditioning programs have helped to create a standardized raw material, allowing some operations limit the amount of stress on cattle during shipping. These programs help producers set the cattle up for success and get them ready for that journey.

“Spread out as many things as you can. Calves are going through a rough time when they say bye, bye to momma,” Stewart says. “Pre-conditioning works great because you can remove that stress slowly and take your time. Creep feeding or forward creep grazing is a way to help calves become self-dependent and helps them get used to being away from momma. The magical number seems to be 45 days for pre-conditioning, but even half that time so they get used to a bunk and know what a water trough is will be better than taking them off the cow and shipping them. Most producers need two weeks to observe they're healthy and ready to travel.”

“For cattlemen that have cattle in multiple locations, pre-conditioning is a real benefit if you can get those calves together in one place,” Rhinehart says. “If you don't have a place to pre-condition a large group at least get them together and get the ball out of them before they are shipped. Let them rehydrate and get them ready to go on the truck.”

Advanced health programs come with a set of guidelines and give producers a rough schedule. Vaccines help with the immune system, but managing shrink is the true test whether cattle were prepared for the haul or not.

“The first thing I think of when we ship cattle is shrink and producers need to reduce this as much as possible. If cattle come off the truck with six percent shrink that is mostly just gut fill and they can have that back within hours,” Rhinehart says. “Anything more than six percent, say 10 percent is tissue shrink. Calves are very susceptible to disease at 10 percent shrink and it could take them months to recover.”

Respiratory disease, BRD/shipping fever, can send cattle in the other direction in a hurry. As more markets look for a Choice product, sick cattle have a hard time reaching that quality grade, even if the sickness is diagnosed and treated quickly.

“Pre-conditioned calves have had an opportunity to build immunity to the respiratory vaccines while they are in a low-stress situation. Calves that are not vaccinated prior to shipping have very little chance to build immunity to shipping fever before they need it,” Rhinehart says. “Calves that experience less stress and shrink during shipping will be able to maintain their immunity and fight against BRD the first couple of weeks after they arrive at the feedlot.”

Paying close attention to the details like ration, water and mineral consumption could be the difference in healthy cattle arriving at the destination or cattle that will lose ground. Cattle that are prepared for that truck ride will not have too many bad days.

“Calves need to be hydrated. Not tanked up on water, but hydrated. Clean, cool water is very important. Put the water source in the pen where calves are going to find it. Good bunk broke pre-conditioned calves need to have less concentrate and some good long stem hay leading up to shipping day,” Rhinehart says. “Mineral consumption is critical to helping manage shrink. Plan ahead and watch mineral consumption. The right type of mineral during the pre-conditioning process is important to the health and physiology of the animal.”

“Water consumption is huge during this period. Develop a ration that will give calves what they need based on intake. Having free choice hay available at all times will solve a lot of problems,” Stewart says. “I like for those rations to be roughage based and when you're budgeting, be economical, not cheap. Those calves don't need to gain a lot of weight just keep from going backward.”

It has been well documented pre-conditioned calves handle things like shipping and the transition to the feedyard better than cattle that come with more risk. This insurance policy is great for the buyer. In some cases facilities, available land or sometimes lack of knowledge are limiting factors that prevent some operations from using the 45 day period to get those calves jump started. Working with available resources and using common sense can help ease the trip even with calves that have to be shipped fairly quickly.

“Make sure they have a good source of roughage, with a mineral component that gets in them,” Stewart says. “Injectable, chelated or oral minerals could help at this point. During this stressful time, it's important to keep those calves on the right plane of nutrition.”

“We can do some things with short term weaned calves to help them make a quick transition. Injectable mineral or electrolytes in the water will help those calves,” Rhinehart says. “Either one is better than sorting those calves off the cow and putting them on the truck. High risk cattle usually come off the truck with a lot of shrink and their value will be reflected in the market.”

Animal handling is a hot topic. Not only in the industry, but also the main stream media seems to be very concerned how cattlemen handle livestock. The benefits of proper handling can be seen all the way to the consumer. Getting cattle on the truck in a safe, practical manner sets the tone for a good trip.

“Low-stress handling is critical. What calves experience at this time could change how they handle the trip,” Rhinehart says. “Work those cattle easy, have your shipping pens set up where cattle just flow naturally and you don't have to push them. This will help reduce stress, manage shrink and begins the hauling experience in a good way.”

“Handling those calves right is important. If you have planned everything out right, you should be cool, calm and ready to go on shipping day,” Stewart says. “Work cattle and make little to no noise. Let them find the hole. In the long run this takes less time than pushing them and you don't get the stress started. If those cattle have to go across country you don't want them all stirred up before they get on the truck.”

Genetic selection will also play a role on shipping day. Proper selection for disposition could help make the day go smooth. Removing the bad apples will help the rest of the load.

“Select for docility when you buy bulls or are making culling decisions. Those calves can handle a little more stress without getting worked up,” Rhinehart says. “One calf can affect the entire load or disrupt the calves riding in the same compartment.”

Distance is always a factor when it's time to ship cattle. Unfortunately, it is a long way from some of the fertile cattle producing regions to the headquarters of the feeding industry. Logistics and a good relationship with the trucking firm will help ease the nerves.

“A good relationship with your hauler is very important, especially if you are retaining ownership,” Stewart says. “A lot of people will use one trucking firm and request the same driver. It's important to build that relationship with an organized trucking firm that is always on time and the driver knows something about cattle.”

“When we send cattle from the Southeast, most of the time those cattle will be on the truck for 12 to 14 hours. Producers have to look at long term weather events when they are planning shipping day,” Rhinehart says. “The BQA transportation guide is a good resource for most producers.”

Planning ahead will eliminate stress on shipping day. A good, organized crew will help things stay on schedule. Certain elements the producer cannot control could change the day a little, but good planning will make the next step easier on the cattle and the crew. Taking care of business will get the calves on the truck and producers one step closer to pay day.

“Long weaned, pre-conditioned calves should handle the trip better and hit the ground running when they get to their new home,” Rhinehart says. “We want to reduce shrink as much as possible during the trip. Well-prepared cattle make friends, which could lead to a long term relationship between buyer and seller.”

“Everything you do needs a set time. Planning ahead of time will help you mange getting those calves on the truck,” Stewart says. “The more you plan ahead the less stress. The less stress on people; means less stress on the cattle.”

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