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Shipping Cull Cows: Responsible Welfare Considerations

This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers, in collaboration with Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director.

With cows and calves coming off pasture in the coming weeks, some of these cows will likely be going to market.  Producers are reminded to be very cautious when facing a temptation to market thin, weak, lame, or sick cows that are unfit for transport.

Some auction markets will refuse to accept cows that are unlikely to sell, and some sales yards and packing plants will bill producers who deliver cattle that are condemned.  Moreover, producers, cattle buyers and transporters have an ethical and legal obligation to ensure the well being of the cattle under their care.

It can take longer than you think for cull cows to reach a slaughter plant, which should also be taken into consideration before loading those cows on the truck. Just because the cow went to auction one day does not mean she’ll be at the plant the next. Take a little extra time to think about the animals you are planning to ship before they are loaded, and consider that longer hauls may be involved.

Some cows should not be shipped to auction markets under any conditions.  Do not load or transport:

  • Animals that are lame, downers, have broken legs, or those that cannot rise, stand and walk under their own power.
  • Excessively thin cows (body condition score of 1) due to hardware disease, lumpjaw, malnutrition, old age, disease or any other cause should not be transported.  Cows with a body condition score of 2 (out of 5) can be transported short distances if they are segregated.
  • Animals with cancer eye: Do not transport animals with an obvious growth on the eyeball or eyelid.  Advanced cases of cancer eye (i.e. the animal is blind or the eye has been obscured) are not fit for human consumption and will be condemned at the packing plant.
  • Prolapsed animals: Do not ship animals with an obviously displaced vagina, uterus, or rectum.
  • Lactating cows: Cows that have not been dried off should not be hauled, except for short distances, direct to slaughter.
  • Pregnant cows: Do not transport cows to sale if you know they are heavily pregnant or expect them to calve within a few weeks.
  • Otherwise sick or injured animals: Except on the advice of a veterinarian, do not transport sick or injured animals until they have been treated and recovered.  Old, weak or thin cows will need to be segregated from the rest of the herd while they recover.  If the animal is not expected to recover, euthanize it on the farm.  If a reportable disease such as rabies, BSE, tuberculosis, etc. is suspected, it must be reported to the CFIA immediately. These animals must not be transported.

Any shipper, marketer, etc. found guilty of contravening the Alberta Animal Protection Act is subject to a fine up to $20,000, and may be prevented from owning or caring for any animal for a period of time determined by the Court.  Similar animal welfare laws are in place across Canada.

There are alternatives for dealing with these types of cows.  The best method is making culling decisions while the cows are still fit for transport.  If any cows on the cusp of being unfit for transport absolutely must be transported a short distance, ensure that they are adequately bedded and loaded last in the back of the trailer by themselves (but not in the doghouse where they would need to use ramps and would be difficult to access if they became compromised during the trip), so that they come off the trailer first. 

Animals not fit for transport should be euthanized and properly disposed of on-farm or via a deadstock removal service.  Cows that are free of drug, vaccine and chemical residues, do not have a fever above 39oC (104.5oF), have a body condition score of 2 out of 5 or higher, and are able to walk under their own power may be salvageable through emergency slaughter.

Changes to the Canada-Alberta BSE Surveillance Program, effective November 1, 2012, have removed the upper age limit of 107 months, as well as the 30-day ownership requirement, so some cows unfit for transport in Alberta may be eligible for this program and the $75 payment from CFIA for participation.  Contact your regional CFIA office for information on the National BSE Surveillance Reimbursement Program.

For more advice on whether an animal is fit to load, please consult your veterinarian, auction market, or a reputable trucker.  The Canadian Livestock Transport Training Program is also an excellent resource for truckers, shippers, and receivers; offering species-specific customized training on livestock and poultry handling, loading, and biosecurity.

We can help to maintain consumer confidence in our industry, especially in trying times, by ensuring that our treatment of our animals is beyond reproach.  We know that treating our animals with respect and care is the right thing to do, and this includes recognizing when animals are unfit for transport, and taking the proper corrective actions.

It only takes seconds of video from a smartphone to damage our industry’s integrity, and make us less credible when we say “we care.”  If you’re making the right decisions, you don’t have to worry about who might be watching.

For more information on cattle transport issues and related research projects, visit the Transport page at

For more information on carcass disposal methods and links to deadstock removal services across Canada, visit the Disposal of Cattle Moralities page at

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