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The real cost of poor stock handling

08 March 2024

The way you handle livestock can have significant long-term impacts on animal health and performance, as well as the bottom line, according to NAPCo Supply Chain Manager Rick Young.

Rick works with transport companies, truck drivers, livestock agents, feedlots and managers to improve livestock handling techniques and raise awareness of the production effects. He’s seen firsthand the value small improvements can add over a large scale.

“In large enterprises, it’s evident how things multiply quickly,” Rick said.

“If you’re handling 100 or 1,000 head, you may not see the significance of a lot of things. When you’re doing something 500,000 times a year, one cent here and there is just incredible.”

Poor handling and gut health linked to huge losses

Being conscious of where your livestock are in the supply chain and what the next owner may need from them is important, Rick said.

“Most performance and welfare issues are a direct result of handling or setting cattle up at some point, but most of the effects that we cause can’t be seen for weeks or even months.”

Rick stressed the importance of building your plans around the best outcomes for you and the people at the other end of the trip.

He recently presented data on the weight loss of two groups of steers moving from a backgrounding property to a feedlot. The first group was handled well and the second was not handled well.

On average, the first mob lost 19kg, or 5% of their bodyweight. The second lost 29kg, or 8% of their bodyweight. At the time, that led to a loss of $45/head in the second mob.

“For the number of cattle that we move each year, $45/head would equate to around $7 million,” Rick said.

“One bad handling or impact on their gut health could influence them forever.

“We’ve had plenty of mobs where someone before us hasn’t looked after them and they never really recover or perform.”

Poorly handled livestock will go off feed, then eat or overeat, then go off feed again and do what’s called a ‘fishtail’ of up and down consumption, Rick said.

Managing gut health through any situation is also crucial. Upsetting digestion processes can take from 10 days to several months for recovery, while some never recover to normal consumption.

The improvement in technology and availability of data means there is no question of the results – improving handling and managing gut health leads to better production outcomes, Rick said.

“There is so much evidence to say that it has a real influence and it’s long term.”

“We’ve all got a job to do and sometimes handling cattle well includes putting pressure on them. You put them in situations they’re going to experience again and teach them to handle it.

“They learn when they do the right thing, it’s a good thing.”

Small changes can lead to big benefits

One company Rick worked with has now halved their truck loading time and reduced their electric prodder usage.

“I let the operation go and load trucks how they normally would, and it took 16 minutes to load a truck.

“With a little bit of work, we got that down to 12 minutes and less stress. A little bit more work and we got it down to eight minutes.

“We put the pressure on down the back then got out of the way. They were up the truck and gone.”

Quite often, getting the little things right leads to significant benefits, he said.

“You need to be conscious that what you do has a significant effect down the track. Your part in the journey doesn’t finish when you shut the gate.”

Lessons learnt

  • Handling cattle well improves weight gain, animal welfare and safety for everyone involved.
  • One poor handling can impact an animal’s performance for life.
  • Most performance or animal health issues are a result of rough handling at some point.
  • Handling animals well involves working with their natural inclinations and allowing them to experience and manage pressure in a way they understand.
  • Think about the whole supply chain and where the livestock are going to after your place.