Jake Eystad was contacted on Oct. 10 by one of his customers to haul a load of livestock. Eystad replied that he couldn't move the load until Oct. 28. The customer, with few options, was willing to wait.

"If I could hire a couple more owner-operators, I’d hire them in heartbeat," said Eystad of Eystad Trucking Inc. of Donnelly, Minnesota. Eystad handles the scheduling for his own trucks and few other operators, about 10 in all.

For a variety of reasons, the supply chain and logistics problems that are being felt by industries across the U.S. seem to be magnified in the livestock industry.

For one, fall is the busiest time of year for cattle sales and the drought and subsequent lack of feed has more cattle on the move than is typical.

"There's too many cattle at one time and not enough trucks," said Roger Potter, a cattle order buyer and rancher at Braddock, North Dakota.

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Potter said with many of those cattle being weanlings, they can't just be left in a pen until a truck arrives, with timely shipping being critical. "A lot of ranchers are selling their calves all at once," Potter said.

Some other factors weighing in:

  • Potter says cattle are being shipped farther than in a typical year, headed to where there is more feed. "That makes problems worse when you have to be on the road for 12 to 14 hours."
  • Unlike freight, cattle trucks usually "bounce home," Eystad says, returning empty after a delivery. Cattle shipments will charge more per mile than freight, but freight haulers are usually getting paid both ways.
  • The feed shortage means that there is a lot of hay being hauled, taking trucks out of the pool to haul livestock. In general, the shortage of truckers is "driving up the price of freight and making people make decisions about what people want to haul," Potter said.
  • Baxter Anders, owner of sale barns in Belle Fourche and Philip in western South Dakota, said winter weather already has caused delays in cattle shipments. "A blizzard backed everything way up," Anders said of an early October storm. And since then, he said "fierce winds" have sometimes kept trucks off the roads.
  • It's not just cattle and calves being sold that are being trucked. With livestock producers in northern drought areas not having enough feed to get through the winter, ranchers are sending their cattle to feedlots or to graze fields farther south. In a typical year, "

Potter said the lack of truckers is affecting livestock sales prices. "This year, you have to secure a truck before you can buy cattle," Potter said. "You start the day with five trucks, you fill those five truck and you're done."

But when truck space fills up, there are fewer bidders, and prices suffer. "You can see it as a sale goes along. The first half of a sales can be real good, but if I leave my seat, there's less competition. Cattle can cheapen up considerably."

But Anders said it isn't that extreme. "I don't think it's affecting the market, he said.

For ranchers, giving as much advance notice to the sale barn on plans to consign and getting cattle to the sale barn early may help ensure that their livestock are sold earlier in the day.

Potter doesn't blame truckers for taking loads other than livestock. A livestock hauler has to do the unloading themselves and deal with cleaning out their truck. "The cattle hauling industry is a tough industry … It’s a lot of work," he said.

Eystad says he likes working with animals but isn't seeking out new customers, instead focusing on the customers he already has.

He has a son in the business, but fewer farms and smaller families means a smaller pool of people who would be willing to get into ag trucking. "Not into the livestock part of it," he said.