The stress of relocation

In any business, it is important to keep growing and improving your profit potential. The same applies to your beef cattle herd; you consistently need to improve your herd’s profit potential. One way of doing this is to improve your herd’s genetic potential to ensure optimal production. Artificial insemination (AI) is a great option for improving genetic potential, but often it is not the most practical option for a farm; it may be more practical to introduce new animals (bulls and cows) into the herd in order to improve the herd’s genetic potential. This leads to the purchase of new animals from different bioregions and environments – and the associated stress of relocation.

When buying in animals to improve your herd’s genetic potential, there are a number of different factors to consider when you are relocating them in order for them to perform optimally. To ensure that these animals adapt easily into your herd, it is important to understand what influences their productivity during the relocation process. The most important factors affecting a herd’s health are water, body condition, the herd health programme, stress, and nutrition. While all these factors are affected when animals are relocated, the most important factors influencing the well-being of cattle during relocation are:

  • transportation;
  • time in transit and distance;
  • animal weight variation;
  • feed and water deprivation;
  • poor animal handling;
  • the new environment;
  • different veld and feedstuffs;
  • commingling (herd social structure);
  • exposure to new diseases, external and internal parasites;
  • weather;
  • malnutrition; and
  • foetal programming.

Animals experience a significant amount of stress during relocation. When an animal is stressed, a signal is sent to the brain where a series of chemical reactions take place and the level of cortisol increases in the body. When the cortisol level increases, it suppresses the immune system and the animal’s productivity starts to decrease as it starts to experience some discomfort. This can lead to immune activation and inflammation, which can lead to disease, which can then result in death (read more about optimising immunity for lifetime performance). Two of the most important aspects that influence the success of relocating animals are transportation and adaption of the animals in the new environment.


Transportation of cattle is necessary, and the effects and subsequent physiological responses vary between different animals. The physiological changes that occur during transportation begin with dehydration, lack of feed intake, tissue damage, fume inhalation, and physical and psychological stress. These changes can result in immune system inhibition from prolonged exposure to stressors. Throughout the transportation process, there is evidence of decreased immune function and an increase in inflammation. Factors affecting cattle well-being during transportation include:

  • loading density;
  • transport duration and distance;
  • driver experience and skill;
  • animal handling;
  • weather and trailer environment;
  • recent environment exposure;
  • feed and water withdrawal; and
  • animal type, sex, and age.

Little intervention is performed with cattle prior to transportation and it is suggested that the following pre-transport practices be implemented.

  • Cattle should be fed and watered within 24 hours before loading, if the trip is longer than four hours or five hours before loading, if the trip length is over 12 hours.
  • Cattle should be in good health and fit for transport (good body condition score).
  • Cattle should be handled as little as possible and as gently as possible.
  • Cattle should receive one hour of rest for every hour transported.


Bioregions, environments, and management systems vary tremendously. The relocation of cattle exposes the animals to different bioregion, environmental, and management challenges. Adaptability refers to how well cattle handle these environmental and management stressors. Factors affecting the adaptability of animals on-farm include:

  • foetal programming;
  • region of origin;
  • management system;
  • weather/climate;
  • exposure to external and internal parasites;
  • nutrition, including water and veld quality;
  • animal type, age, and sex;
  • disease risk;
  • herd health programme;
  • environmental conditions (e.g. mud or dust); and
  • commingling.

In regions with relatively high temperature and humidity, parasite loads, and production challenges, adaptability is even more important. Cattle performance in a bioregion within a specific environment is affected by their response to stressors, including nutrition, disease, weather/climate, and topography. Nutritional stressors, for example, may include the presence of toxic plants in grazing areas and forage quantity or nutrient quality limitations. Cattle genotype (genetic make-up) interacts with the environment. In other words, within a specific environment, some cattle are better adapted to perform optimally than others. Differences between breeds and individual differences between cattle of the same breed are relevant when considering how adapted cattle are to a specific area.

A focus on adaptability is essential in current production systems, environments, and bioregions to improve herd profitability. Consider health programmes and disease exposure of cattle from other regions before making purchasing decisions. Disease risks in distant locations may be different from local disease concerns, especially when you are relocating animals from the west to the north and east. Try transporting cattle from other areas to the farm when conditions are optimal at the farm. For instance, bring cattle in during periods of high forage availability and quality and low parasite loads. Avoid transporting cattle to the farm during adverse weather conditions, including periods of high temperature. When animals arrive on the farm, they need immediate access to clean, fresh water and good-quality hay or feed. After arrival, when the animals have rested, they need to start with the farms herd health programme as soon as possible. It is also important to keep the newly arrived animals separate (quarantined) for at least a month before introducing them the rest of the herd. When introducing the animals to the new bioregion and environment, start slowly and allow time for social adaption with the rest of the herd.

Reducing the stress of relocation

Getting the little things right is the key reducing the stress of relocation. The loss of an animal that could have helped improve your herd’s genetic potential has a much bigger long-term impact than simply the financial loss of physically losing the animal. Managing your risk with proper preparation and good management practices will ensure optimal production performance and maximum profit.

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