Transporting livestock isn't always an easy task. Learn these tips for how to prepare, load and unload a livestock trailer to help the process go as smoothly as possible.
The Virginia-based Misty Mountain Farm raises family-sized milk cows that provide a sustainable source of wholesome, heart-healthy grassfed meat, milk, cheese, yogurt and dairy.
Photo By Misty Morning Farm
Trailer loading is one of those skills they just don’t teach in school! At Misty Morning Farm, we run into some interesting situations. Especially when purchasing from a hobby farm where, as a rule, there are few facilities. I hope that by sharing some of these experiences and loading savvy, you can avoid potential problems and have a good experience loading your new cow. Going to pick up your cow should be a fun adventure. My husband and I always say, “Let’s go on a date and pick up our new cow!” If it’s nice, we take a picnic. We look up coffee shops along the way and try to have fun each time.
Whoever is the best at backing up should do the driving. Whether it’s you or the person you are purchasing from. Don’t be shy; we can’t be good at everything! If your choices are very limited, go into a large parking lot and practice. When you have the truck and trailer lined up straight, put your right hand (if you’re right-handed) on the steering wheel at six o’clock. From this point, if you’re backing up and you move your hand to the right, your trailer will move to the right. If you move your hand to the left, your trailer will move toward the left. Don’t be frustrated if you have to pull forward and repeat; that’s how we all learn!
There are certain “just in case” items we always take along to pick up a new cow. For starters, we bring a couple quarts of organic — or at least non-gmo — grain with lots of molasses swirled on top. This is to entice your reluctant rider to hop on board! You can buy a gallon of molasses at places like Tractor Farm Supply. Molasses comes in handy for many other uses around the barn, including a top dress for supplements the animals don’t care for. We store it into clean dish soap or ketchup bottle for application to the grain. We also like to add a probiotic supplement. The molasses and probiotic will help the rumen with the stress of moving. If you do not have access to probiotic, just use molasses. Probiotics for ruminants can be purchased at farm supply stores. This supplement is critical if your cow is thin or particularly stressed. In these cases, we continue the treatment for a few days after arriving home.
We also bring a shovel. There are times when the cow is short and needs a little help with the step up (you would not need this additional help with a trailer that has a fold-down ramp). Dig out a small ditch under the trailer tires to back into; this lowers the trailer 3 to 4 inches. You can accomplish this by backing to where you want to be and making a mark with the shovel in front, side and behind the rear trailer tires. Then, pull forward far enough and dig out, then back up again until the tires are settled.
If you want to be really creative, and are loading a very short or very pregnant cow like we did here, you can also bring an air compressor. This tool allows you to let all the air out of the trailer tires and lower it another 3 to 4 inches. After loading, use the compressor to re-inflate the tires. We bring these tools “just in case” we need them. They won’t be necessary in most cases, but are a possibility for those unusual situations.
When you get home, pull right into the field to unload. If that’s not an option, get as close to the field as possible and use gates to build a guiding shoot into the paddock.
Here is an excerpt from my blog post, Who Let the Cows Out?! where I describe unloading a cow..
“The other one, Emma Lou, I am babysitting over the winter and keeping her in milk. She is beautiful too. Neither of these girls has ever been handled up close and personal, but Emma actually did quite well. She does not lead and has never had a halter on, so we put the halter on at the farm before traveling. I had to unload her by myself and decided to try it on my own this time, as it seems I am always calling my neighbor to help me. When I arrived, I tried to back the trailer up to the barn door where I would have a straight shot into the barnyard. But, I accidently jack-knifed the truck and trailer in the narrow space and ended up 30 feet away. That’s a big distance with a nervous cow that doesn’t lead! Backing up is not as easy as my husband, Adam, makes it look!
I went into the trailer with the cow and used a natural horse-training technique where you approach and retreat. This takes the pressure off and proves to the animal that it doesn’t hurt to have you close. I did this for 15 minutes to a half hour, and gradually got to the point where I could touch her and then retreat. As is typical, she would only let me near her back end. It’s much harder for cows to get comfortable with you near their head, which is more vulnerable. Using this technique I was eventually able to snap my 35 foot lead to the ring under her halter (very quickly once I got my hand close). I let her settle a little, and then opened the door.
I had previously kicked straw over the wet boards near the stock trailer door. I didn’t want her to slip down the step and hurt herself (that udder needs protection from mishaps). I said a prayer, and opened the door. It only took her about thirty seconds to unload. But of course, she instantly started pulling against the lead rope and went in the opposite direction! I gave her some line so she would relax, then I tried to pull and release (release is the reward, another horse-training technique that we use). I got a random step here and there, but dark was approaching and I still had to milk this lovely lady. After an hour or so of this, I relented and called my neighbor. He graciously came over and it was only a matter of minutes — with his gentle “pressure” from behind — that she decided to walk forward. Because she had a halter on, I could now guide her in the right direction. “
Offer free choice, good-quality hay.Don’t over-feed her on grain and alfalfa hay which will make the transition harder. Too many rich foods are not good for a cow because they have to work hard to digest them. It will complicate her transition to a new situation.
Finally, we separate a new cow for 30 days to make sure all is well with her health.
Congratulations on your new adventure, and don’t forget to give back scratches!
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