Livestock transportation has made many strides over the years. From the trail drives of the days of old, to the rail car and finally, modernized hauling rigs that took advantage of this country's vast highway system to get from point A to point B.
No matter what era, from the Trail Boss to the modern day cattle hauler, these ramrods are a rare breed. Although the business of livestock transportation has changed vastly through the years, the kindred spirits who claim to be masters of the trail could be the same men through the ages. Today, it's still a business where a man's word is his bond and firms depend on a third party to get their product to town in a reasonable amount of time.
“That's the golden rule. If you tell someone you're going to be there at a certain time to load his cattle, you better be there. Once my guys are loaded, they arrive at the feedyard within 30 minutes of the designated time, with every load,” says Dane Stuhaan, Stuhaan Cattle Corp., Visalia, California. Stuhaan is a 15 year veteran livestock hauler.
“I have built my reputation showing up on time. I want my trucks there an hour early. If my client tells me to be there at a certain time, I tell my drivers to get there early, spread their saw dust set there gates and the client is usually ready to load when they back up to the chute,” says Joey Bertao, Bertao Livestock, Hanford, California. Bertao has been an owner-operator since 1988.
“I use one trucking firm where I can almost set my watch from the time they call and say they are loaded, until they arrive at the yard. If you want my business, you have to do what you say you're going to do. If a guy is consistently late or negligent, I'll change, simple as that,” says Paul Cameron, Mesquite Cattle, Brawley, California. Mesquite feeds cattle for branded programs.
Drovers walked herds through hostile country, unexpected storms and, sometimes, for days without water. Yet, it always seems there was a watering hole or a grass valley where these herds could rest and graze a little before the buyer took got to appraise them. The tradition has passed on from Trail Boss to trucker, speed is important, but the cattle better look good when they reach the final destination.
“First and foremost, I look for safe animal travel. No matter if it is calves arriving at the yard or fat cattle going to the plant. We have an economic incentive for cattle to arrive unblemished and in good shape,” Cameron says. “Livestock hauling is a tough business. They have to get here in good time, but they also have to stop along the way and check the cattle. We'll inspect them pretty close when they get here and we'll look at closeout sheets to make sure there isn't a problem.”
“My belief is the less time on the trailer, the better off the cattle will be. There is less stress, less shrinkage and fewer problems. I think this has kept my business going,” Bertao says. “Still, we have to stop and check cattle to make sure they are staying up in the trailer. This is getting harder and harder to do because of the animal rights people. My business has grown because I get them from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.”
A scene from the old western “Cowboy” starring Jack Lemon and Glenn Ford had the two in a rail car getting one of the steers back on its feet so it could make the trip to Chicago and add profitability to their venture. This validates the theory of top notch care with speed of travel.
“It is important to get there as fast as possible, but I have my guys make scheduled stops so we can check cattle and make sure they are standing up and riding well,” Stuhaan says. “That calf needs to look the same going down the truck ramp as he did going up the chute.”
In the days of old, the cowboy code and “Mother Nature” were about the only rules for the transportation specialist. In the wake of the media blitz, brought on by certain organizations, as to how cattle are treated in a harmful manner has awakened the paper pushers and caused new standards to be implemented. Timely certification courses and other practices have been implemented for operators.
“It hasn't had much affect on the way we do business. I'm usually there when we load. We use hot shots as little as possible and keep drivers up to date on livestock handling information we get from organizations like the California Cattlemen's Association or other interested parties. We don't get in a hurry when we unload these trucks. We have to keep up with the industry standards,” Stuhann says. “Hauling something into different packing plants is a bit of a challenge. Being corporate people, they continually pass on information to us. We have to certify our drivers for different programs. We have noticed buyers are buying better cows that we haul for slaughter.”
“Several companies have sent me letters and we have had to go to class. We have always loaded cattle with minimal use of a hot shot, but now we are not allowed to use hot shots at certain times and are only allowed to use minimal paddle,” Bertao says. “We deliver to one plant where our drivers can't even get out of the truck, because they won't let the driver unload that trailer. This is something that bothers me because I have no control over my load of cattle and what goes on at this time. I understand why the plants have had to go to this policy because they have people watching for any mistake.”
Economic incentives have always been in place to dictate the safe handling of livestock. Just as that Trail Boss instructed his crew to get as many to town as possible, now more than ever, taking care of that product and getting it to it's final destination has never been more important.
“Safe handling has come to the forefront with the public because of negative media. Humane treatment has always been a top priority with our firm. We have to stay on top of the humane handling issue because we have to deliver the best product possible to get that economic advantage. All drivers are instructed in safe handling of livestock, including minimal use of hot shots,” Cameron says. “We interact with the trucking companies and critique the drivers as they load or unload cattle. If there is a problem with a driver, I'll take it right to the trucking company management.”
Along the same lines of increased guidelines when it comes to livestock handling, the paper trail that follows cattle these days rivals that of a ticker tape parade. Branded programs and export ventures are demanding traceability.
“Animal tracking is very important with Holsteins. The calf ranches have developed a great system and all cattle have ID tags,” Stuhaan says. “We aren't burdened with any of the ID paperwork, it goes directly to the feedyard, but we have to wait for each calf to pass a tag reader so we have an accurate inventory of what's on the truck. We'll carry a brand inspection, health papers and weights on to the yard.”
“Used to, we got by with a brand inspection and health papers, now we carry ID information too,” Bertao says. “Some of my drivers think they need to be compensated more because it takes longer to load. They ID each individual as it's loaded and pass that information to the feedyard. It's time consuming, but we are going to have to get used to IDs and tracking because it's a valuable part of the industry.”
With the continued evolution of the equipment used to move these four legged critters, expenses have shot up the scale in remarkable fashion. Horsepower is no longer driven by a sack of oats and even that would be hard on the wallet these days. Fuel costs are the driving force behind these costs and most transport companies have had to change the business model to keep a fair wage.
“It has gotten tough to make a profit as fuel prices increase. It's sometimes hard to pass it on because a lot of my customers have been longtime customers, but I have to pass it on or I don't make a profit,” Bertao says. “I go as long as I can, but inevitably, I have to pass on my increase. Everything has gone up.”
“As fuel goes up we have to go up on a schedule. It is hard for some people to swallow, but our hauls have been pretty steady,” Stuhaan says. “The calf ranches need someone to be loyal to them and there still is enough demand for trucking where it's a profitable venture.”
Most businesses are willing to meet the increased costs in some form or fashion because they know how the system works. Still, to a point, firms are willing to pay for all the benefits that come with getting the job done right, rather than go cheap and sacrifice.
“Feed costs, more than anything, dictate how we do business and $6 corn makes it tough no matter how you look at it,” Cameron says. “I know trucking costs are going up because it costs more for fuel to keep good personnel and insurance. Freight costs on the commodities I get delivered have gone up as well. It's part of doing business and I am still going to stay with the guy who hauls and takes care of them, even if I have to pay a little more.”
In the old days, as long as the herd reached its final destination before the weather broke, drovers could usually count on a pretty good pay check. One mistake in timing could lead to a cold death for man and his beasts. Today, weather changes are more predictable and the season of the year will dictate the timeliness of the haul.
“In the summer time, I want the hauler to cool down the inside of his trailer, get some fresh bedding and load in the late afternoon,” Cameron says. “Calves will get here at two or three in the morning which is the coolest part of the day. The truckers we work with are fully aware of the problems we can have when calves get too hot and change their hours of operation.”
Timing is still everything in the transport business. Trucks that are in top shape before they go down the road will ensure smooth trips and repeat business.
“We can't afford to be broken down on the side of the road. We'll be 100 degrees when we load some times of the year and where we're hauling them it'll be 110. When it gets too hot, we start running at night so we get them there when it's cool and we don't give that calf a reason to get sick,” Stuhaan says. “A good mechanic and timely service will do wonders to keep you going. We do the best we can to keep trucks on the road. Good steady maintenance and we try to find any problems before we go out.”
New regulations, in addition to break downs, can have an impact on the bottom line. Some fear regulations have gone overboard. Most would agree it leads to increased expenses keeping trucks on the road, but has help clean up a business that once had a dark cloud over its head.
“I can't afford to have a truck tied up. If I can't get my customer's cattle from point A to point B, he'll get someone else,” Bertao says. “Regulations have done away with the guy who runs up and down the road and doesn't care. Some of these regulations and fines are unfair, but they're the biggest reason I buy new equipment every couple of years or keep what I have running like new.”
Many enterprises within the segmented beef industry have identified labor shortages as a key component in lost profit. Unfortunately, it's not like the trail drives of old where you could sign on the greenhorn and train him during the drive. Livestock hauling, along with many jobs within the beef industry, is a highly specialized trade.
“When costs, like fuel and food, go up I have to give my drivers a raise because it's hard to find good drivers,” Bertao stated. “I have to take care of them. Most of them have been with me for a long time and I can't replace them.”
“I had to cut back to six trucks because I couldn't find drivers who could pass the drug tests,” Stuhaan says. “You never know with a driver going down the road. Some took longer than others, but they didn't realize I had made the same trip before and knew exactly how long it should take them with designated stops. I had to realize big was not always better. When I couldn't find drivers who fit my standards, I quit fighting it and kept my best drivers.”
If the legendary trail boss could be interviewed, most views would probably comply with the modern day drover. First and foremost, be true to the bond made with the handshake and follow through with the delivery.
Second, it is an independent lifestyle few are suited for, but the only thing potential customers have to go on for the next run is a sterling reputation. Taking a page from the days of old, these modern day transporters put their livelihood on the line with every trip. One mistake could put them out of work. The diligence they take care of due process is one tradition that cannot be lost.
“When I cut back, everything was riding on my reputation that I had built with years of service,” Stuhaan says. “I had to keep my reputation and I might as well keep a good one.”
“A lot of things have changed. Costs have gone up, equipment has changed and there are less and less ranches,” Bertao says. “I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting different people and I meet a lot of nice people. I have a lot of long term relationships because we do business year after year and in most cases every week. I deal with a quality product and it's my job to deliver it that way.”