Emergency Off-farm Housing for Cattle


On rare occasions, the delivery of cattle which have been transported off the farm may be prevented by extraordinary circumstances. These situations could include a closure of the Canada/United States border due to disease or regulatory issues, a work stoppage at a processing plant, or the cessation of business at a processor or feedlot to which the cattle were to be delivered. It may not be feasible to return these animals to the farm they originated from as their ownership may have changed and/or the farm of origin may have not have adequate space or feed. In these situations it would be necessary to provide emergency housing and feed for the animals until a long term solution is found.

Factors which must be taken into account in organizing temporary care include:

  • Human safety
  • Animal safety
  • Animal care
    • Water
    • Feed
    • Shelter (if necessary)
    • Animal health
  • Handling and reloading cattle
  • Environmental impact
  • Record keeping

According to the Beef Cattle Code of Practice, cattle in transit should not be without food and water longer than 48 hrs.


The first need which must be met when providing temporary housing for cattle is physical containment of the animals. This requires fencing or penning capable of withstanding cattle pressure. Suitable areas could include barn yards on farms which have been used for livestock in the past, but are currently empty or underutilized, or fair or exhibition grounds which are used periodically for displaying livestock or horses. Another possibility is the utilization of adequately fenced pastures which are currently free of livestock. Other opportunities such as vacant industrial yards which are bordered by heavy duty chain link fencing may be available on a local basis. The owners/operators of these premises need to be contacted to determine their willingness to host the displaced cattle. Municipal authorities should be contacted to determine if zoning regulations permit animal housing, or if temporary permission for animal housing can be obtained under exceptional circumstances.

Although electric fencing is an excellent on-farm option for livestock containment under normal situations, it is not recommended under this situation. Animals need to be "trained" to electric fencing, and some of the cattle in this situation may not have this in their background. This could lead to break outs, endangering the cattle, property and human safety if animals wander onto roadways.

When introduced into any new environment, cattle will travel the fence line to establish the boundaries of their new territory. They will test the fencing to identify any weak spots, and will attempt to push through the barrier at any apparently vulnerable locations. Extreme vigilance is necessary during the first day to ensure that weak spots can be fortified to prevent escapes.

Environmental Impact

If the proposed site has not previously housed cattle, it should be evaluated for its ability to host the cattle without adversely effecting the environment. Of particular concern is the effect which runoff from the cattle yard may have on nearby watercourses or well sites. There may also be potential impacts of odour and noise on neighbouring businesses or residences. Consulting with an Agricultural Engineer would help to identify potential environmental hazards and develop plans to address them.


Water is the most essential nutrient. Cattle require large amounts of clean water on a daily basis. After physical containment is achieved, the next priority is to provide an adequate supply of water. Water requirement is directly linked to temperature: the higher the temperature the more water required. Heavy feedlot animals would require about 35 litres of water at 10 C., but this increases to almost 80 litres at 30 C. One truck load of 40 animals would require up to 3200 litres day. For comparison, typical home heating oil tank holds about 1000 litres. For emergency situations, almost any large clean open top container is a potential water trough. Ensure that the container is clean and never contained toxic chemicals. They can be filled using a garden hose, but since flow is limited it is much more efficient to use larger diameter piping connected to the water supply. Most industrial buildings will have a suitable water supply. Fire hydrant connections may also be available in urbanized areas.

Sufficient waterers must be provided to ensure that all cattle have adequate access. A rule of thumb is that 1 linear foot of water trough perimeter will supply up to 16 head of cattle. Non-concrete waterers must be kept at least 25% full to provide enough weight to prevent cattle from tipping them over. Low cost, easy to install float operated valves are available to automate the filling of water troughs. Water troughs are high traffic areas, and hoof action combined with spashed/overflowed water can quickly create a muddy area. The water troughs may have to be emptied and moved periodically to prevent mud bogs from developing.

In winter, provision of water is complicated by freezing temperatures. This can be dealt with in several ways. In the short term, the amount of water supplied can be controlled just to meet the cattle's daily needs, with the trough allowed to remain nearly empty over night, and the supply line drained. The trough is then filled with fresh water in the morning and the cattle will drink the water before it freezes. For the longer term, water proof electric elements can be installed to prevent freezing, but water lines must still be drained or pulled back into a warm building.


Ruminant animals such as cattle will suffer metabolic upset if feed is not provided on a regular basis. Animals which are being shipped for slaughter are normally held off feed and water for a period of time prior to shipment. As a result, providing feed (as well as water) to these animals must be a high priority. Animals which have been in a feedlot will have been on diet which contains a high percentage of grain. However, it is not necessary or even advisable to feed them a high grain diet during an unscheduled holding period. Providing a forage based diet (such as dry hay) will promote rumen motility and cud chewing, which will induce the production of natural buffer. This will encourage the maintenance of normal rumen bacterial populations and help to prevent rumen stasis and/or acidosis.

Small amounts of a grain mix may eventually be added to the diet if necessary to provided supplementary protein and minerals. Hay can be fed daily on the ground. Unrolling large round bales will help to limit wastage but is not essential. Depending on the length of time the cattle will be at the location, it may be worthwhile to obtain portable metal bale feeders to limit waste and ensure all cattle are receiving adequate feed. Large salt blocks should be placed in the pen to supply salt to the animals. If cattle will be on site for an extended period of time, then free choice mineral (matching the feed) should also be provided.


Cattle older than a few months of age can withstand cold temperatures, as long as they have available shelter from strong winds. They do not need a roof over their heads. If the site does not have adequate wind protection (barns, buildings, bush lot etc.) and the weather is wintry, temporary windbreaks can be constructed using plastic mesh windscreen attached to wooden frames. If convenient, these can be placed along the outside of existing fencing. If they have to be placed inside the enclosure, they will need to be protected from the cattle with temporary electric fencing.

The need to provide bedding material (such as straw) will depend on season and vary by location. During summer conditions where a grassed field is part of the enclosure, no bedding should be required. During winter, or if cattle are confined to pens, some bedding will be needed to provide a dry area for cattle to lie down. Large bales of straw can be obtained and placed in pens. Cattle will spread the bales around. If straw is not available, truck loads of wood shavings may be dumped in pens or on the ground.

Animal Health

Most animals which are being transported will be in a healthy state, however the stress of longer than normal waiting times on a truck may cause problems. When cattle are off loaded at the temporary site they should be evaluated for any signs of physical trauma such as lameness, as a well as digestive upset indicated by diarrhea, or respiratory stress such as coughing or panting. Animals which exhibit signs of illness should be penned off from the main group and attended to by a veterinarian. Portable gates can be used to make a temporary hospital pen. Ensure these animals have access to water, feed, and a dry bedded resting area.

Biosecurity and Human Safety

If the cattle are being housed a novel location, they may attract people who are drawn out of curiosity. In order to prevent possible injuries to these people, who are not likely acquainted with livestock, the cattle housing area should be secured from the public and their pets. Existing fencing can be utilized, and access roads can be signed or manned to prevent unwanted traffic. The local police should be informed of the situation so they are prepared to respond to calls, and they may be able to provide a security presence during the unloading and initial "excitement" period. They should also be supplied with a list of experienced cattle handlers who would be available to assist in the case of an animal break out or other incident.

Preventing access to unauthorized people will also go a long way to ensure the biosecurity of the cattle. Authorized people who have access to the cattle yard should follow basic biosecurity protocols such as wearing disposable footwear or disinfecting boots prior to and after visiting the cattle yard. This will minimize the risk of transferring pathogens into or away from the cattle yard.

Only people who are experienced with livestock should be allowed to work with the cattle Using feeders placed along the edge of a fence line or pen will permit feed without people having to enter the cattle pen. This will promote human safety and reduce the risk of cattle escape during the operation of a gate into the pen.

Handling and Loading

Eventually, the cattle will have to loaded on to a truck. If an on-site handling/loading facility is not pre-existing, a temporary corral and loading chute will have to provided. These consist of metal gates which are pinned together in an arrangement suitable to the conditions. They could be borrowed or rented temporarily. If cattle are to be on site for a long term, it will be necessary to obtain a headgate and working chute so that sick animals can be examined and treated.

Record Keeping

A copy of the load manifest should be kept by the person in charge of the cattle at the temporary site. An initial head count should be made as animals are unloaded from the truck. Animal tag numbers should be recorded. This can be used as a checklist as animals are removed or to identify animals which may escape. The cattle should be counted daily to ensure that there have been no escapes. If an animal is removed from the site for any reason, this should be noted on the manifest or similar document, including the tag number of the animal, the reason it is being removed, where it is being taken, and who is removing it.


Emergency situations, by definition, take us by surprise. This document can act as a checklist of priorities and opportunities for temporary housing of cattle stranded in transit.

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