Producers don’t often think about what happens to their cattle after they leave the farm, and the cheque is in the bank.
But with more public focus — and new rules — on how animals are transported, it’s worthwhile to have a better understanding of what happens (or doesn’t) after your cattle are loaded on a trailer.
What occurs on the ranch before the calves leave, as well as, proper handling during transportation is key for getting calves on feed and water faster, says a longtime buyer of western Canadian cattle.
Ken Schaus and his father have been receiving and feeding cattle from Western Canada since the 1970s, back in the days when they arrived by rail car. Today, they all come by truck to his facility in Elmwood, Ont.
“Every year there seems to be more and more loads,” said Schaus, who receives cattle from Western Canada not only for his feedlot, but also for other Ontario feeders.
He’s also one of the more prominent cattle buyers in the country because of his prolific use of Twitter (he often posts video of cattle at his feedlot @KenSchaus).
Communication, ample straw, and not overcrowding are some simple things that make a big difference, he said.
“We don’t crowd them. Even on short hauls we insist on straw in the trailer.”
Straw and weight matter
Before cattle even step foot onto a trailer, Schaus talks with both buyers and truckers and requests 60,000 pounds for a tri-axle cattle liner with an L-shaped doghouse and front deck.
“We’ll talk about when we’re going to load and where we’re going to get the straw (for bedding the liner),” said Schaus. “Once there is 30 small square bales of straw in the trailers, we tell the driver how we like them loaded.”
Thirty small square bales is the magic number when transporting cattle by liner from west to east.
“We’re not going from Brooks to Lethbridge. If you put any less in there what we see is bare floor,” he said.
If the shipper “cheaps out” and only uses 20 bales and the trailer encounters wet roads, things get wet inside. With calves moving around, the straw ends up pushed to the edges of the trailer. The calves get dirty and wet, the floor gets slippery and frozen, and it goes from bad to worse, according to Schaus.
“When the bare aluminum floors of the trailers are exposed, all of a sudden problems (like a down calf) can happen,” he said, adding straw is preferred to shavings, which more easily get worked to the side.
Schaus is also diligent about pay weight.
If the cattle are coming out of southern Alberta or Saskatchewan, he knows how many calves are on that trailer and the weight. For example, 100 calves in the 600-pound range is too many even if the trailer is rated for 61,500 pounds, he said.
“As a buyer, now we have to take five or six head off to get the pay weight down to 59,800 to 60,200,” he said. “That’s what we do, we don’t overcrowd the trailer. Not having enough straw, and overcrowding on trailers is creating nothing but problems for calves. That’s why we handle the way we do.”
Schaus is often told that he has 63,000 pounds to come east, and when he objects is told, “That’s how we do it here.”
But overcrowding just means calves will be slow to get started on feed when they arrive.
“Calves need a certain amount of floor space,” he said. “I’ve seen enough problems when cattle aren’t handled properly.”
Communication with the trucker — not dispatch — helps the process to go more smoothly.
“Every load of cattle I have en route, I get a text before they load, I get a text when they unload at Thunder Bay, I talk to the trucker when they are roughly 12 to 13 hours away.”
When calves are heading to a feedlot in Manitoba, Schaus requests the trucker phones that facility when he hits the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border. There have been times when he phones the Manitoba feedlot to check in on the load, only to find that there was no communication with the trucker. Oftentimes these are the loads without bedding in the trailer and might have a downed calf or two.
“They have more troubles with cattle that aren’t handled properly, even on a 10- to 15-hour trip, than they do with properly handled cattle on a 36- to 48-hour haul.”
On a long haul to Ontario, cattle are off-loaded at Thunder Bay for a feed, water and rest stop. The city has two different stops for liners, each like motels for the cattle. One (known as ‘The Barn’) has 25 pens, with each one able to hold a load of cattle.
Truckers typically call five or six hours before arriving, and provide details on the load (including how long they’ve been on the road and where they’re heading). This is when drivers can advise if more straw is needed.
“If the roads are wet and sloppy, we’ll request more straw in the trailer at Thunder Bay to keep things dry,” he said.
A crew will be waiting and do the unloading into an already prepped pen. (Typically the cattle will eat and drink a little bit.) The next morning another crew will provide any additional bedding required and load the cattle. It’s another 24 hours to Schaus’s facility — “a nice, big, modern stockyard here with a lot of pens.”
They are penned right away, run through the chute for vaccines, and then go out that day to the feedlot customer who purchased them. All the cattle that come east through Schaus’s facility become part of the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program.
On the ranch
Schaus said he understands that cow-calf producers have a lot on the go, but there are things they can do to prepare cattle for transport.
A simple one is to expose weaned calves to water troughs and feed (something other than grass and mom’s milk). That way, “we are not taking these calves right off a cow, never having seen a water trough or feed bunk,” he said.
It makes a difference, said the veteran cattle buyer, adding he can spot that difference shortly after the calves come off the truck.
Calves that have had a simple vaccine protocol — IBR, BVD, BRSV, and 8-way — prior to shipping help protect them after they arrive.
“That is a base, and gets those cattle coming off the truck without any shipping fever,” Schaus said, adding calves get booster vaccines after arriving at his facility. Attention to details both at the ranch and during transport pay dividends, and that continues at his facility, he said.
Showcasing that approach is one of the reasons why he posts videos of cattle on social media.
“The cattle are clean, there was communication made to ensure someone at the feedlot is present to unload them, there’s no slipping or sliding, and we make sure the guide ramps are used. It’s the little things like that, that add up to a successful outcome.”