Cattle Transport Guidelines for Meat Packers, Feedlots, and Ranches

(Updated October 2008)

By Temple Grandin
Dept. of Animal Science
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523


Each year the cattle industry loses millions of dollars due to bruises and dark cutting which reduces the value of the carcass. Careful handling of cattle during loading and unloading will help reduce losses and improve animal welfare. Conscientious drivers who avoid sudden stops and accelerate smoothly play an important role in preventing cattle from going down in the truck. This guide also contains guidelines on loading ramps and cattle stocking densities.

People manage the things that they measure. The performance of people and the condition of equipment needs to be constantly accredited and measured to maintain high standards. The guide will outline critical control points that can be measured and standard which can be used to train truck drivers.

Recommendations for Loading and Unloading Ramps and Handling Areas

Ramps and pens must be in good repair and have non-slip flooring. Observations in hundreds of facilities indicate that the number one equipment problem is slippery floors that cause cattle to fall. In new facilities, concrete should be grooved in an 8 in. (20 cm) diamond or square pattern with 1 in. (3 cm) deep V grooves. Slick areas in existing facilities can be roughed with a concrete grooving machine or a metal grate constructed from ¾ in. or 1 in. (2 cm to 3 cm) diameter steel rods can be constructed for use in high traffic areas. The rods must be welded flush and be spared in a 12 in. (30 cm) square pattern. Other methods for making a floor non-slip are covering it with sand or installing rubber mats.

Excessively steep ramps should be avoided. The recommended slope for a ramp is 20 degrees. Either stairsteps or cleats can be used. On concrete ramps, stair steps that have a 3 ½ in. (10 cm) rise and a minimum tread length of 12 in. (30 cm) are recommended (Figure 1). If cleats are used they should be spaced so that there is 8 in. (20 cm) of space between the cleats. This will fit the stride length of cattle.

Chutes that are used to unload cattle at a packing plant will work best if they have a level floor which is 10 ft. (3 m) to 20 ft. (6 m) long. A level area will prevent wild cattle from jumping off the top deck of a truck onto the ramp. A wide ramp is recommended at a plant to provide cattle with an unimpeded exit. The most efficient ramps for loading large trucks with a 30 in. (76 cm) wide rear door are single file. They should be 30 in (76 cm) wide. The most common mistake is making a single file chute too wide.

Low stock trailers (goosenecks) can be loaded and unloaded without the aid of a ramp. A ramp must be used on vehicles higher than a stock trailer. In new stockyards, unloading ramps can be eliminated by building the yard floor at the same level as the trucks.

It is beyond the scope of this guideline to provide complete design information on loading and unloading ramps. The information provided here answers some of the most commonly asked questions about loading and unloading ramps.

General Facility Requirements

Fences, gates and other equipment must be free of sharp edges or broken equipment that can bruise cattle or damage hides. Bruising is most likely to occur when cattle strike an object with a small diameter such as the edges of a piece of channel iron. Gates should be equipped with tie backs to prevent cattle from becoming wedged between the end of a gate and a fence. Contrary to popular belief, cattle can be bruised after stunning. This is why it is so important to have well maintained equipment.

Tips for Handling Cattle (SOPs)

  1. Keep cattle calm – Calm animals are easier to move and load. When cattle become agitated, it takes up to 30 minutes for them to calm down.
  2. Move cattle at a walk or a trot – Injuries from falls and bruising increases when cattle run into gates and fences.
  3. Reduce noise – Cattle have very sensitive ears and yelling and whip cracking stresses them. Handlers should not yell or constantly whistle.
  4. Eliminate Electric Prods – In most facilities cattle can be loaded and unloaded without electric prods. A flag or paddle stick or other non-electric aid should be a person’s primary handling tool. Truckers and handlers must not constantly carry around electric prods. Several feedlots have greatly reduced costly dark cutting carcasses by eliminating electric prods during truck loading. If an electric prod is needed it should be used on a stubborn animal and then put back down.
  5. Use Behavioral Principles – Handlers should be trained so that they understand the behavioral principles of flight zone and point of balance.

    To keep animals calm and move them easily, the handler should work on the edge of the flight zone. He penetrates the flight zone to make the animals move and he backs up if he wants them to stop moving. The best positions are shown on the diagram. The handler should avoid the blind spot behind the animal’s rear. Deep penetration of the flight zone should be avoided. Animals become upset when a person is inside their personal space and they are unable to move away. If cattle turn back and run past the handler while they are being driven down a drive alley in the stockyard, overly deep penetration of the flight zone is a likely cause. The animals turn back in an attempt to get away from the handler. IF the animals start to turn back, the handler should back up and increase the distance between himself and the animals. Backing up must be done at the first indication of a turn back. If a group of animals balk at a smell or a shadow up ahead, be patient and wait for the leader to cross the shadow. The rest of the animals will follow. If cattle rear up in a loading chute, back away from them. Do not touch them or hit them. They are rearing in an attempt to increase the distance between themselves and the handler. They will usually settle down if you leave them alone.

    The point of balance is at the animal’s shoulder. Cattle will move forward if the handler stands behind the point of balance. They will back up if the handler stands in front of the point of balance. Many handlers make the mistake of standing in front of the point of balance while attempting to make an animal move forward in a chute. Groups of cattle in a chute will often move forward without prodding when the handler walks past the point of balance in the opposite direction of each animal in the chute. It is not necessary to prod every animal. If the animals are moving through the chute by themselves, leave them alone.

  6. Make Cattle Flow – Cattle will move up a ramp and onto a truck more easily if they are quietly driven up to the ramp and immediately loaded. Do NOT allow cattle to stand and turn around in the crowd pen that leads to a loading ramp. Cattle should not be brought up to the loading ramp until the truck is ready to load.
  7. Remove Distractions – If cattle refuse to move up a loading ramp or down an alley, remove distractions that cause them to balk. Some common distractions are seeing people up ahead, reflections off puddles, vehicles parked near the chute, dogs, or a piece of chain hanging down. Painting the facility one color to reduce contrast and installing solid fences on ramps and around pens will often improve cattle movement. Solid sides improve movement because they prevent cattle from seeing distractions outside the fence.
  8. Acclimate Cattle to Handling – Cattle should be accustomed to being moved by a person on foot before it is time to ship them to a packing plant. Cattle that have never seen a person on foot are more difficult to handle and more likely to become bruised or have more dark cutters. Acclimating cattle to people moving them on foot also improves safety for truck drivers and handlers.

Critical Control Points for measuring the quality of handling and facilities for loading or unloading of trucks. Each CCP is assessed on a yes/no basis for each individual animal.

Falling Score 1. Percentage of Cattle that Fall Down or Slip
Fall is one of the most serious problems that can occur during loading and unloading. This CCP includes cattle that fall or slip inside the vehicle.
  1. Excellent – No slipping or falling
  2. Acceptable – Less than 3% of the cattle slip
  3. Not Acceptable – 1% fall down (body touches floor)
  4. Serious Problem – 2% fall or 15% or more slipA slip is scored if slipping causes an obvious changing in the animal’s movement.
Speed Score 2. Percentage of Cattle that Move Quietly at a Walk or Trot that do not Run or Jump
  1. Excellent – 90% or more move at a walk or trot
  2. Acceptable – 75% or more move at a walk or trot
  3. Not Acceptable – Less than 75% move at a walk or trot
  4. Serious Problem – Less than 50% move at a walk or trot
Electric Prod Score 3. Percentage of Cattle Prodded with an Electric Prod
  1. Excellent – 0% moved with an electric prod
  2. Acceptable – 5% moved with an electric prod
  3. Not Acceptable – 20% moved with electric prod
  4. Serious Problem – Over 20% moved with an electric prod or an animal is moved by an abusive method such as hitting it hard or poking it in a sensitive area such as the eyes, nose, mouth or rectum.
Cattle Striking Objects 4. Percentage of Cattle that Strike Objects such as a Truck Door, Truck Deck, Gates or Fences.
Rubbing against a flat smooth surface such as the inside of the trailer is not counted.
The following events should be scored as striking an object:
A. Cattle bumps back on truck deck
B. Cattle bumps into the side of the truck door or jams against the door.
C. The animal’s head strikes a fence or gate.
D. An animal is caught between the end of a gate and a fence.
E. Cattle bumps into a gate latch or bumps a gate strike post.

One score is tabulated that includes inside the truck, loading or unloading ramp and pens, fences and gates in the immediate vicinity of the ramp.

  1. Excellent – 0% strike an object
  2. Acceptable – 1% strike an object
  3. Not Acceptable – 2 to 5% strike an object
  4. Serious Problem – More than 5% strike an object

Conditions on the Transport Vehicle SOP’s

Stocking Densities – Trucks and stock trailers should be loaded per the stocking densities on Table 1. Overloading of trucks will increase the chances of an animal going down on a truck. Bruising is also increased when trucks are overloaded.

Table 1. Recommended Truck Loading Densities
Feedlot Fed Steers or Cows, Avg. Weight English/Metric Units Horned or Tipped or more than 10% Horned and Tipped English/Metric Units No Horns (polled) English/Metric Units
800 lbs (360 kg) 10.90 sq. ft. (1.01 sq. m.) 10.40 sq. ft. (0.97 sq.m.)
1000 lbs (454 kg) 12.80 sq. ft. (1.20 sq. m.) 12.00 sq. ft. (1.11 sq. m.)
1200 lbs (545 kg) 15.30 sq. ft. (1.42 sq. m.) 14.50 sq. ft. (1.35 sq. m.)
1400 lbs (635 kg) 19.00 sq. ft. (1.76 sq. m.) 18.00 sq. ft. (1.67 sq. m.)

Driving Methods – Careful driving will help prevent bruises and injuries. It will also help reduce weight losses. Rapid acceleration or sudden braking shuld be avoided because poor driving can cause animals to lose their balance. Air ride suspensions are strongly recommended to provide a smoother ride.

Prompt Unloading – Trucks should be scheduled so that they can be unloaded promptly when they reach the plant. Trucks should be unloaded within 15 minutes after arrival. Non Slip Flooring – A new aluminum trailer has good non-slip footing but cattle start slipping when the diamond plate floor becomes worn. Cattle ride easier on nonslip flooring. One sign of a slick trailer is more manure on the floor. Slipping agitates cattle and causes more elimination. Slipping can be reduced by welding small bars or aluminum mesh on the floor.

Reduce Heat Stress – When the Livestock Safety Index is in the emergency and danger zones, if possible, cattle should be transported at night or in the early morning. In double shifted plants where this is not possible, vehicles must be kept moving because heat builds up rapidly in a parked vehicle. Heat stress is especially a problem when cattle that are acclimated to living in a cold climate are transported to a hot climate.

Prevent Cold Stress – Since cattle are ruminants, animals that have been acclimatized to cold weather can withstand very low temperatures. The most dangerous conditions are freezing rain because it wets the hair and destroys its ability to insulate. During freezing rain conditions, drivers must make sure that sleet is not blowing into the side of the trailer. During a sleet storm it would probably be advisable to pull off and stop to prevent wind chill from stressing or possibly killing the cattle. Dry snow which does not wet the hair coat has much less effect on cattle. Cattle with slick hair coats are acclimatized to warm weather are more sensitive to cold stress. Wind chill can make a trailer very cold. When a truck is moving 50 mph on a 20 degree day, the wind chill factor is minus 23 degrees.

Checking the load – Drivers should check the cattle to make sure no animals have fallen down every time they stop at a weigh station or truck stop. Downed cattle are likely to be trampled and injured. Sometimes an electric prod has to be used to induce the animal to stand because entering the trailer would be dangerous.

Vehicle Maintenance – Both the tractor and the trailer must be kept well maintained. Broken gates, ramps, decks and latches in the trailer must be replaced or repaired.

Vehicle Cleanliness – Vehicles must be washed a minimum of once a week. One study showed that dirty trucks were a source of pathogens that could contaminate the meat. Ideally trucks should be washed daily or after each load. This is especially important if the truck hauls cattle to many different places.

Driver Incentives – Implementation of financial incentives to reduce bruises and weight loss should be used to motivate drivers. Drivers who are financially rewarded will be more willing to handle cattle quietly and to drive carefully.

Critical Control Points for TrucksThat Can Be Measured

  1. Stocking Density – This should be monitored on a per load basis. Measure on PASS/FAIL basis – overloaded or not overloaded. Fail if any one compartment is overloaded.

  2. Driving Methods – Could be audited with electronic equipment that measures braking and acceleration. Electronics can also be used to monitor temperatures inside the trailer which occur both during stops and when the vehicle is moving. Limits for this CCP will have to be developed.

  3. Prompt Unloading at the Plant
    Excellent 90% of the trucks start unloading within 15 minutes after arrival. No truck waits longer than 20 minutes.
    Not Acceptable 75% of the trucks start to unload within 15 minutes but at least one truck has to wait over 60 minutes.
    Serious Problem 90% of the trucks wait over 60 minutes.

  4. Cleanliness – Send as Acceptable or Not Acceptable, Pass/Fail for each vehicle.

  5. Maintenance – Scored as Acceptable or Not Acceptable, Pass/Fail for each vehicle

Prompt unloading can be measured in several different ways. An auditor can spot check it and score the trucks that can be observed in a short period or unloading times can be tallied for all trucks during a week or day.

Scores from the critical control points for handling and trucks should be entered into a computer and compared with scores for bruising, carcass weight and dark cutters. This will enable the plant and the truckers to make continuous improvements which will improve both animal welfare and meat quality. Merging meat quality and transport data can also be used for determining incentive pay for drivers.

SOPs for Handling Non-Ambulatory Cattle

  1. Euthanasia – Cattle that are unfit for transport should be euthanized and not subjected to the additional stress of transport. The National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit concludes that producers can alleviate many carcass defects by culling cows earlier. Timely marketing when an animal is still fit will reduce the incidence of non-ambulatory cattle. Euthanasia of unfit cattle must be according to the guidelines of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. Gunshot or captive bolt is acceptable. Cattle must be shot in the middle of the forehead.

  2. Unfit Cattle – Unfit cattle include cattle that cannot walk, have severe lameness that make walking difficult or are emaciated and weak. Weak animals are more likely to become non-ambulatory. Cattle listed with any of the conditions listed in the NCBA Quality Assurance Marketing Code of Ethics are not fit for marketing. Truck drivers should refuse to transport animals that are unfit.

  3. Non-Ambulatory Cattle at the Slaughter Plant - In the U.S., cattle that are down on a truck and not able to walk off under their own power cannot be slaughtered in a USDA inspected slaughter plant. Abusive methods must not be used to make a non-ambulatory animal get up. Some methods that would be considered abusive are: beating, poking with sticks, more than two shocks with an electric prod, or lifting with a fork lift under the belly. Before the use of beta-agonist feed additives, feedlot cattle seldom became non-ambulatory. Problems with downer or very lame, stiff feedyard cattle have increased in cattle from feedlots that use large amounts beta-agonists. The two products used in the U.S. are Zilmax (Zilpaterol) and Optaflexx (Ractopamine). The feet on these cattle usually look normal. In extreme cases, the outer shell of the hoof has been sloughed off. This would be very painful for the animal.

  4. Transport of Non-Ambulatory Cattle for Veterinary Treatment - If a non-ambulatory animal has to be transported it should be placed in the rear compartment of a double deck trailer near the door or transported in a single deck vehicle. The non-ambulatory animal should be loaded onto the vehicle without being dragged. The best method would be a purpose built truck with a powered lifting tailgate to raise the cow to truck level. Lifting tail gates which would lift the cow on a level platform are commercially available for use on delivery trucks. Another alternative would be a forklift equipped with a metal platform. The use of bare forklift forms on a wooden pallet is not acceptable. Both of these devices are too narrow to support the cow. Dropping a non-ambulatory bovine off the back of a truck to ground level is forbidden.

Moving Non-Ambulatory Cattle

To move a non-ambulatory cow it must be transferred into a sled. A sled can be constructed from a wide piece of conveyor belting that has been stiffened on one end with a metal bar. This will prevent the belting from curling when the sled is pulled. The motive force must be attached to the sled, not the bovine.

Critical Control Points for Monitoring Handling and Transport of Non-Ambulatory Cattle

  1. Dragging the downed animal is forbidden.
  2. Acts of abuse such as beating or sticking any object into a sensitive part of the animal such as the eyes, nose, mouth or rectum is forbidden.
  3. Dropping the animal from a height of more than 12 in. (30 cm) is forbidden.

Additional Reading

American Association of Bovine, Practitioners. Contains Euthanasia Guidelines.

Grandin, T. 2007. Livestock Handling and Transport, CABI International (3rd Edition), Wallingford, Oxon, UK. Contains chapters by 17 different authors that review scientific literature on handling and transport. Contains practical information on cattle handling and information on facility design plus training methods in English and Spanish.

National Cattleman’s Association – National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit, 1999. Englewood, Colorado. Contains NCBA Quality Assurance Marketing Code of Ethics.

National Institute of Animal Agriculture, Bowling Green, KY. Contains training materials in English and Spanish.

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