How to Transport Livestock

livestock market
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images
These lambs were transported from all over northern Scotland to attend Lairg's great annual lamb sale.

The idyllic days of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker are ebbing away in the modern world, and chances are good that if steak is on the grocery list, whatever gets picked up at the store isn't from around these parts. Getting all the animals (whether they're cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry or another type of livestock) from the farms and ranches where they're bred and raised off to their intended destinations typically means taking a little drive -- although air, ship, rail and good old hooves are other potential alternatives.

But traveling to slaughterhouses, markets and other locales with livestock isn't as easy as loading a herd of kids into the car and setting off cross-country. Children can be a handful, sure, whining about how so-and-so is poking them and filling a small, enclosed space with shrill hollers of "Are we there yet?" That being said, hours jammed into the backseat of a car aren't likely to cause children any serious -- and potentially life-threatening -- discomfort, stress, fear, pain or injury.

That's why the people in charge of transporting livestock typically take special precautions to make sure the animals in their care are properly prepared and guided through the loading, transporting and unloading process. In many cases, these steps are dictated by laws intended to protect the animals from harm and ensure they're treated in a humane manner.

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But while that's important, it's not all there is to the story. If an animal is destined to become dinner, rough handling decreases the quality, flavor and color of the finished meat product because a stressed, frightened animal soars through key energy reserves. While letting livestock rest before slaughter can in many cases reverse this damage, taken in tandem with the idea that humane practices are important morally, it's good sense to keep the ride from being too brutal. Other bad outcomes are bruising, hide damage and various injuries, which also greatly decrease livestock's value.

On the next page we'll take a look inside the trailers used to transport livestock.

Livestock Trailers

livestock trailer
This bright red beauty is an example of a typical livestock trailer.

If you've ever traveled with a pet in the car, you probably know how easy it can be to scare your dog or cat with actions like heavy braking, sharp cornering or diving into a big pothole. Now consider the fact that these are tame domestic animals, and depending on how many pets you have in the car, they're probably traveling in very limited numbers with you there for comfort. Livestock are in a much different boat, so let's discuss some of their traveling needs.

A suitable livestock trailer is a huge component of successful animal road transport. It must be large enough for the number and size of animals being transported, and the law usually sets these ratios and dimensions. It must also be well-ventilated since a lack of air can suffocate livestock or highway fumes can poison them. Ventilation is needed at floor level, too; otherwise ammonia-laden urine can linger. However, that doesn't mean the vents can be open through the floor to the highway -- it's not legal to let that mess drop through.

Heat (especially humid heat) can also be a huge problem without proper ventilation. Environmental conditions in general are of great concern, so it's vital to check the weather and prepare for whatever's blowing into town. Extreme temperatures affect particular types of livestock in different ways, so it's vital to have appropriate arrangements set up inside the trailer. Wind chill and rain are also major factors.

Livestock trailers should also have nonslip floors because animals are prone to panicking if they slip. Cross slats of wood or grids of metal are two possibilities for the trip, although other types of skid-resistant flooring are available. Depending on the animals involved, there may also need to be partitioned areas within the vehicle to help decrease the risk of injury. It doesn't hurt to pad the inside of the trailer as well, and in regards to the type of livestock, the vehicle either needs high sides or a roof.

If this is already starting to sound a bit complicated, that's because it is. Click over to the next page to learn about some of the safety precautions that are necessary for transporting livestock.

Livestock Transportation Safety

stampeding cattle
Make sure to be safe when transporting livestock.

The first rule for handling livestock is to avoid it if you can. If you must break that rule, know how to handle the type of animal you're dealing with. Accidents can be fatal, so the importance of having an expert on hand cannot be stressed enough.

Livestock need to be loaded slowly and quietly to avoid stress and injury. Even animals that appear calm are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, especially if they suddenly become frightened or feel threatened. They must be treated with patience and gentleness or they can prove a threat to themselves, to other livestock and to their handlers. Spooked animals will usually take about 30 minutes to calm down, so even if you're in a hurry, it's best to take it easy on them right at the onset to avoid untimely delays. The more you try to rush an animal, the more you'll usually slow the process down.

If an animal is injured, it can become even more difficult to control. Always keep an eye on any wounded or frightened animals and don't turn your back on them. It's also important not to sneak up behind animals in general because this can cause them to panic. When it comes to transporting livestock, great attention must be paid to how the animals are approached and confined. Most don't mind being in close contact with familiar herd mates -- and often prefer it -- since it's how they typically exist in nature. It's just that if one becomes upset, there's a good chance others will follow suit.

Cattle are prone to stampeding, for example, while horses can rear and deliver deadly kicks if they feel threatened. Pigs are powerful animals, and the males have fierce tusks. While squealing doesn't necessarily mean distress, pigs are especially susceptible to extreme temperatures, injury and stress. Poultry, too, must typically travel inside climate-controlled conditions and be kept calm to avoid a group panic. Shorn sheep are also distressed by extreme temperatures, and while they love being in close contact with herd mates, sometimes they can crowd too closely together and suffocate.

Handlers must always stay alert and have an established escape route in case a situation suddenly gets out of hand. Also be careful if you're hoping to mix different species or place horned animals with hornless ones, as this can lead to big problems en route. When transporting livestock it's paramount that all the animals are protected from harm, and from each other if need be.

Now that we've gone over many of the things that can go wrong while transporting livestock, let's go over some useful tips for handling them on the next page.

Tips for Transporting Livestock

animal flight zone
2009 HowStuffWorks

First let's talk about an animal's flight zone. Most animals are likely to bolt if a person approaches them suddenly within an area closer than they're comfortable with. This circle is considered their flight zone. The more frightened or flighty an animal is, the larger its flight zone. So how to navigate around this difficult space and coax an animal to move in the proper direction? Livestock have what's known as a point of balance. The point of balance extends out from an animal's shoulder, so handlers need to approach and back away from that area at different angles depending on which way they want the animal to move. Generally, standing in front of the point of balance will cause an animal to back up, and standing behind will cause it to move forward. Understanding appropriate walking patterns will expedite loading and unloading.

Leveraging a herd's point of balance is a great way to get them going. If necessary, a tap here and there on the alley to the vehicle can also help move them along. Another easy strategy to enhance smooth loading and unloading is to start by leading in the tamest animals first, which are likely to serve as docile leaders to more stubborn animals. When especially stubborn animals still won't budge, never strike them with a stick and only prod them as a last resort. When an electric prodder is necessary, a battery-operated one is the preferred choice. It's best to try to find out what's causing the animal to balk and rectify the problem, or if that's not possible, use gentler tools like flat straps, plastic paddles or even rolled-up newspapers to coax hesitant livestock along.

Controlling the surrounding environment is another extremely important consideration because there are many visual and tactile distractions that can seem innocuous to us, but prove a real hindrance when it comes to keeping animals moving. For example, you should keep all extraneous noise to an absolute minimum. Turn off the engine and any lights -- especially any that flash or move.

Depending on the situation, it can be a good idea to carefully adjust the diet of livestock before transporting them. For example, they may need to be kept off green food and water before a trip and given only dry feed for varying periods of times beforehand. The specific timetables depend on factors such as the species and age of the animal, the weather conditions and the length of the journey, so it's essential to find out in advance what precautions are needed for any particular trip. Otherwise, livestock can quickly become weak and disoriented, and make a royal mess of the trailer, staining their coats and creating a dangerously slippery situation.

Watch for the potential symptoms of injury or pain. For example, an animal may seem disoriented with glazed eyes, exhibit reluctance to move or difficulty moving, or stand in a rigid position or be unable to stand at all. It might also shy away from herd mates; shiver, grunt or grind its teeth; make excessive noise; or even have an open bleeding wound. Whatever the situation, an experienced handler should be available to identify problems and assist wounded animals in a humane manner.

Once everybody's unloaded, assessed and given any care necessary, it's time to send the livestock to whatever fate awaits them. For more information on animal care and lots of types of agriculture that might not have hit your radar yet, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Alberta Farm Animal Care Web site. (11/16/2009)
  • Australian Livestock Transportation Association Web site. (11/16/2009)
  • Blackwood, Ian and Hurst, Ray. "Tips for transporting cattle and sheep." New South Whales Department of Primary Industries. February 2007. (11/16/2009)
  • Grandin, Temple. "Behaviour of Cattle, Pigs, Buffalo and Antelope During Handling and Transport." Animal Science at Colorado State University. (11/16/2009)
  • Grandin, Temple. "Livestock Handling and Transport." CAB International. 2007. (11/16/2009)
  • "Guidelines for humane handling, transport and slaughter of livestock." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2004. (11/16/2009)
  • "Livestock 101." Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. (11/16/2009)
  • "Livestock Transport Emergency Guide." Ontario Farm Animal Council. March 2007. (11/16/2009)
  • United States Department of Agriculture Web site. (11/16/2009)