Tips from the road - preparing cows with care for transport

Tips from the road - preparing cows with care for transport

23 February 2020

DairyNZ Developer Jac McGowan talks with driver Mike Shaw about why carefully selecting and preparing cows for transport is so important.

With life on the farm keeping us busy, it’s easy to think that once cull cows are loaded up and heading to their destination, the job’s done. However, we have a responsibility to protect our cows’ welfare beyond the farm gate.

With this in mind, and being a farmer myself, I went along for a ride with Mike Shaw, a driver with Midlands Rural Transport, to find out what happens after cows leave the farm.

I join Mike just north of Taupo at 8am for the drive to Te Aroha. It’s usually a two-hour trip, but we’re picking up cattle from 10 locations, so the whole journey will take 10 hours.

The route is planned ahead of time, with Mike considering cattle with vet certificates, animal size and breed. Several of the farms on this journey are truck only, meaning Mike must drop the trailer before going onto the farm and collect it after.

At the first farm we wait half an hour because someone slept in and at several places we are slowed down or redirected by roadworks. Mike says that transporters and farmers are generally understanding about delays because there’s usually a good reason.

“But being offered a cup of tea makes waiting easier.”

Mike jokes about farmers quietly disappearing when they hear the stock truck coming but says he would really like farmers to stick around.

“Someone being there is the most important thing,” Mike says. “It’s easier to sort any issues straight away, and if an animal is difficult to load, help is appreciated.”

It’s also important for driver safety.

Transporting livestock is a huge responsibility and requires a different frame of mind to transporting freight. The smoother Mike can drive, the better the animals will cart. He travels slowly with smooth gear changes (mostly) and leaves big gaps between himself and vehicles in front.

However, sometimes things don’t go smoothly and when there’s a breakdown or traffic delays, a different attitude is required when carting livestock.

Mike says when there are delays it’s big concern for drivers with stock on. While freight guys can sit for 20 hours with no problem, livestock transport needs to be kept as short as possible. His first thought when he sees a blocked road is whether he can turn around.

Plants can also break down and in these instances, drivers cool the animals in their trucks with water until the plant starts up.

“The longest I’ve waited in line is six hours. But if the breakdown is serious, we might be diverted to a different plant, or asked to unload at saleyards overnight,” Mike says.

For this reason, he recommends preparing cows for a much longer journey than you’d think.

One aspect of preparation is minerals. Farmers know from calving season that both magnesium and calcium are essential for a cow’s muscle function – and standing on a moving truck for hours is hard work on the muscles.

Mike says it can be noticeable when cows are short of magnesium as they are less settled and move about more. To combat this, most farmers give extra magnesium and dry feed, such as hay, before transport.

Most cull cows also need calcium because they are still lactating. While they are still making milk, they are using calcium, but are not getting any more to replace it. Without a pre-transport top-up, they can become unstable on their feet during longer journeys.

Getting cows off green feed at least four hours before the truck arrives gives them a chance to empty out, reducing the risk of effluent spills on the road. Mike explains it’s better for animal comfort too.

“They don’t travel well if they aren’t stood off grass. With a belly full of grass, they take longer to settle – they’re more top heavy and less stable. And more effluent on the truck deck makes it slippery for them.”

I left Mike as he was loading up the last cows at 5pm. Te Aroha was still half an hour away and the first cows had been on the truck since 8.30am. It was eye-opening for me how long a trip ‘just up the road’ can take.

We all want the same thing for our cows – a comfortable journey with minimal stress.

My time with Mike reinforced for me the importance of selecting and preparing cull cows well so they can handle whatever their journey throws at them.

For more information on transporting stock visit

Article supplied by DairyNZ