Frequently asked questions about animal welfare

Are cattle and sheep looked after on live export ships?

Absolutely! There are strict regulations around the number and type of staff dedicated to looking after livestock on ships, and the welfare of the cattle and sheep is monitored both day and night.

All ships must have at least one LiveCorp Accredited Stockperson on board, and longer voyages will also have an Australian Accredited Veterinarian. They are supported by a number of competent stock handlers, and many of the ship’s crew are there purely to look after the livestock.

The stock handlers and vets do several rounds a day to check on the cattle and sheep, and a crew member checks food and water through the night. Special ‘hospital pens’ are set up for animals that are injured or not eating, and there are medical supplies on board to treat common illnesses.

What food and water do cattle and sheep get on live export ships?

There is usually food and water waiting in the pens on the ships when the cattle and sheep are loaded, or it is provided shortly afterwards.

Water is provided constantly, with most ships having a desalination plant on board. The troughs are checked and cleaned several times a day.

Fresh food is distributed at least twice a day. It comes in pellet form, along with some chaff or hay. Sheep and cattle have a chance to get used to the feed before boarding the ships, as they spend several days in a feedlot called a Registered Premises.

Many cattle and sheep actually put on weight during the voyage.

I see cattle and sheep on trucks – is it like that on live export ships?

No, it is quite different. Livestock are usually on trucks for relatively short periods. Being close together helps them to stay on their feet around corners, given they can’t ‘hang on’. It also stops them lying down, which could see them injured.

There is a lot more room on a ship, which provides the cattle and sheep with enough space to move around, get to the feed and water troughs, and lie down when they want. Live export ships are often called ‘floating feedlots’ as it is a similar set-up.

I hear a lot about heat stress in sheep. What is it?

Animals are at risk of heat stress when they become too hot and cannot lower their body temperature, which can affect their tissues and organs. If it goes on too long, they may end up with heat stroke, which can be fatal.

There are some temperatures where cattle and sheep are more comfortable than others are. Like humans, some feel heat and cold more than others do, so it is hard to put an exact temperature on when heat stress may occur.

Sheep don’t really sweat because of their wool, but still use evaporative cooling. As the temperature increases, they breathe faster to let more air pass over the blood vessels in their mouths, which draws the heat from their bodies. If it keeps getting hotter, they may open their mouths and even hang out their tongues – much like a dog panting.

Livestock export ships have huge ventilation systems to keep the air moving through the animal pens, and help draw away heat. Industry also manages the risk of heat stress in other ways, such as putting fewer sheep on a ship in hotter weather, and changing their feed as temperatures rise so they’re not producing as much internal heat through digestion.

What does the industry’s Vet Handbook say about heat stress thresholds?

Some groups have quoted the live export industry’s Veterinary Handbook for Cattle, Sheep and Goats when talking about the temperature at which heat stress occurs.

The handbook says that “Wet bulb temperatures approaching or exceeding 30 degrees Celcius indicate environmental conditions that favour development of heat stress in small ruminants and preventive measures should be considered under these conditions”.

It also says research “suggests that sheep may be slightly more resistant to heat load and that wet bulb temperatures approaching or exceeding 30ºC may be used as thresholds that favour development of heat stress for sheep.”

In both cases, it does not mean that sheep will experience heat stress at a particular temperature – just that the risk is higher. Like humans, some animals feel the heat more than others, so it is hard to put an exact number on being ‘hot’ versus ‘suffering heat stress’.

The temperatures mentioned in the handbook are an early warning of conditions that may lead to heat stress, so measures may be taken to mitigate the risk and monitor the health of the animals.

How long does it take livestock to reach different countries?

Livestock are exported from Australia to four main regions worldwide – South East Asia, North East Asia, the Middle East, and South-East Europe.

Voyages to South East Asia are the shortest, as it is closest to Australia. The majority of the livestock exported there are cattle from northern Australia to Indonesia, which may spend as little as four days at sea. The average is around 8 days*, counting countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.

Trips to North East Asian countries such as China and Japan take around 17 days* on average. Part of this is because the livestock are more likely to come from southern ports in Australia. Ships to the Middle East also generally come from southern ports such as Fremantle in Western Australia. Trips to Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) take around 18 days* on average.

Voyages into South East-Europe, to countries such as Turkey and Egypt, take closer to 25 days*.

Cattle, sheep and particularly goats are also exported on planes – either in the hold under passengers, or on specially chartered flights. This may put them at their destination less than 24 hours after leaving the farm in Australia.

*National livestock export industry sheep, cattle and goat transport performance report 2018

What is the difference between a short haul and long haul voyage?

A voyage is defined by the regulator as ‘short haul’ if it takes fewer than ten days. It is ‘long haul’ if it lasts ten days or more, and becomes an ‘extended long haul’ voyage if it lasts 31 days or more.

Most trips to South East Asia, which make up the bulk of the voyages, are short haul.

Long haul voyages have additional requirements, including daily reporting of conditions on the ship to the regulator, more bedding for cattle and more veterinary supplies per animal. Extended long haul voyages also must have an Australian Accredited Veterinarian (AAV) on board.

Do you fly livestock overseas on planes too?

All goats exported from Australia travel by air, as do many cattle and sheep. However, air freight accounts for just 3-4% of the total number of animals exported.

Livestock predominantly travel with other goods on cargo planes, or on specially chartered flights.

The livestock are loaded in small groups into specially crafted wooden crates to keep them safe and secure during the flight, and are generally at their destination within less than 24 hours.

Looking for more information?

The Livestock Collective was established to provide information about the livestock industry on behalf of all those who work in the supply chain. It also has an FAQ page and other resources on its website.