Livestock Trailers: How to Choose
I remember the first trailer we bought for transporting our farm animals. We scouted out the classifieds and found what sounded like a very good deal. After finishing the chores and getting gussied up for another farm venture (aka a date), we made the two-hour trek to the trailer owner’s place. When we arrived, our first reaction was hesitation, as we had “never seen a trailer like this one.” Truth be told, we really had not seen many trailers at all.
This was an old metal stock trailer. It did have the promised four stalls, but they were very narrow. The stalls were situated so that you loaded two animals side by side with a metal bar separating the two, and then shut the doors behind each “stall.” Behind those two brave soldiers, you loaded two more side by side, and look out because the back two could easily back right off before you got the door closed — there were no butt bars that went across the stall.
Having driven so far — and since the trailer was so affordable — we handed over our cash. Horses, by nature, are claustrophobic, so loading Spirit, my Arabian/Thoroughbred, was almost an impossible task. I remember many times my husband would patiently work for more than two hours to convince Spirit to load up. Sometimes, when we unloaded, Spirit would throw his head up in a panic to exit and hit his head — the old trailers were shorter than today’s models.
That brings up the second problem with this trailer, as well as most old horse trailers: The very old trailers were not only made narrower, but shorter as well. Not as much of an issue for cows, sheep and ponies, but for horses, it can be a problem.
We ended up keeping that trailer for several years. Eventually, we figured out that when we took out all the dividers and gates, we could tie the horses on a slant and they loaded comparatively like a dream in the open box stall. This worked for our horses that knew one another, but not always for horses that were not pasture mates. It also worked quite well for our smaller animals.
The sequel to this story is that we finally sold that trailer and upgraded to an almost new one. Wanting to be sure that Spirit did not ever again hit his head, we found an extra tall stock trailer.
However, we never considered the wind drag. It’s hard to explain the feeling of driving that big, tall box down the highway. It felt like we had a freight train hooked up behind us. With the extra height and the lack of aerodynamic design, it was a nightmare to pull. We sold that trailer soon after buying it.
When looking for transportation for your four-legged friends, consider all the ways you will be using it. When hauling small animals or newborn calves, for example, you can use a pickup truck with a topper. We have also had people pick up 5- to 6-month-old weanling Jerseys with a dog kennel, the kind that has a chain-link-fence look to it. Make sure it is securely strapped down with strong tie-down straps. We have also picked up newborn calves in a large dog kennel in the back of a truck or SUV. These methods work for goats and sheep as well.
With larger animals, you must have an actual livestock trailer, and the choices can seem endless. Let’s wade through some of the key things to consider when choosing a trailer.
Horse vs. stock trailer
An actual horse trailer usually has windows that look like doors and close up completely. They completely shelter your valuable cargo from the elements. Either the back door is in one piece with the whole door swinging open and the animal steps up into the trailer (called a step-up), or the door is made of two units. You first close the one half, and then the second half. Sometimes there is a tack room behind the first half of the door, and this makes the opening narrower as the animal enters through only one-half of the width of the trailer. The latter would not work well with a large animal that wasn’t tame.
Horse trailers are generally more expensive and typically have more storage for tack, hay and other equipment. They can either come as a step-up or have a ramp that folds down allowing the animal to walk up a ramp. Both are a matter of preference. We like a step-up because we back up to a little hill and the animals can step right off with only a few inches, and we don’t have to worry about the ramp being on sloping ground. Since we raise miniature Jerseys as well as small standard Jerseys, this works well. Even our little 35-inch mini Jerseys can load and unload easily. The ramp load is always hard for me to get up and down on, in all but the better trailers, especially since we are buying used, making them older and more difficult to manage as a rule.
A stock trailer has open slats running the length of the trailer and toward the top half to third of the trailer height. They are less expensive to build, and sell for a lower price if all other details are equal — for example, size, age, type of metal and so forth.
A stock trailer will not usually be ramp load but rather a step-up. An actual cattle stock trailer will have a smaller sliding door built right into the bigger back door. This is extremely handy for loading and unloading untamed stock while backed up to a chute. You can then slide the door shut without moving the trailer and avoid losing any animals. This works great for sheep, goats and calves as well.
Tagalong vs. gooseneck
A tagalong trailer’s coupler connects to a hitch that is installed on the back of your tow vehicle at about the level of the rear bumper. For safety and legality reasons, be sure your tow vehicle is rated for the weight you intend to pull, as well as the tongue weight — the weight on the trailer’s coupler — that will be transferred to the tow vehicle. For a complete analysis of weights, and hitch capacities, see Stock Trailers, Flatbed Trailers, Utility Trailers and More. For more capacity, you can also install a weight-distributing hitch to allow greater towed weights and/or tongue weights, but you want to be sure that your hitch mount, tires and tow vehicle are up to the task.
You will need to install a hitch ball that is the correct size for the trailer’s coupler. With frame-mounted receiver type hitch mounts, and with most bumper hitch mounts, you can easily change out the ball. Your tow vehicle will also need a means to deliver electricity to your trailer to activate brakes and lights. There are several types of plugs with matching sockets — the trick is to use a socket on the tow vehicle that matches the plug on the trailer. In some cases, an adaptor is available to make the connection; in others, you will need to change out the components.
The gooseneck hitch mount is also attached to your tow vehicle’s frame, however, the hitch ball itself is generally located just forward of the tow vehicle’s rear axle. The gooseneck hitch requires use of a trailer with a gooseneck tongue and coupler, and the entire rig allows the tow vehicle to carry more of the weight than most rear-mounted hitch systems. Again, make your selections based on legal capacities of your tow vehicle.
Some folks prefer tagalong hitch systems, while others prefer gooseneck. Some things you might consider when choosing include:
What size trailer do you need? If smaller (under 14 feet), the tagalong might be your best option. There are plenty of tagalong options out there that range beyond 20 feet, so it’s important to talk with your local dealer with your specific uses in mind when making a determination.
Is your tow vehicle an SUV or a pickup with a topper? The tagalong trailer might be your best choice since the gooseneck will only work with an open bed pickup or a flatbed.
If you want the storage space for hay or you want to put a mattress in the overhead section for camping, definitely get a gooseneck.
A gooseneck generally handles larger loads more safely. If you will be hauling more than three large animals at a time, consider a gooseneck.
Steel vs. aluminum
There’s no doubt that some of the most premium trailers out there are constructed almost entirely of aluminum. This material is lighter and, in most situations, less prone to deterioration due to corrosion. They are also more expensive than a comparable steel trailer. Steel is heavier and more prone to deterioration due to corrosion, or rust. Both trailer types require routine maintenance, not the least of which is the cleaning of corrosive animal waste material from the floors and walls. Proponents of steel say that you have to tow a lot of miles to have the lighter weight of the aluminum trailer make sense economically. On the other hand, aluminum proponents suggest that the maintenance issues are not as great with aluminum, and point to higher resale values as proof that they are better. In the end, both aluminum and steel stock trailers have been pulled for millions of trouble-free miles and served their users well. If purchase price is a prime consideration, steel might be the way to go — keep an eye on rust development and correct it before it becomes an issue. If longevity, fuel economy and resale value are prime considerations, then aluminum is probably the way to go. Only you can decide.
Devil in the details
With so many makes, models and options, finding the right stock trailer can bewilder. Here are a few additional things that you will want to consider.
Access doors. Your trailer needs a rear loading door, and ideally a side door, which is aptly called an escape door. It is much easier to slip in and out the small side door while caring for your travelers. Ideally your rear door will have a narrow sliding door built into it, which makes chute loading a breeze.
Floors. Stock trailers tend to have wooden or metal floors. Often the metal floors are covered with mats. If you are considering a used trailer, peel back any mats or straw and examine the wood or metal very carefully. Be sure it is solid, strong and not deteriorating. If it is, calculate the cost to replace it into the cost of the trailer.
Storage. This is, of course, more important if you will be camping with your trailer or traveling longer distances. Horse trailers, as a rule, have more options in this department, but gooseneck stock trailers offer options, too.
Tires. Always check for dry rotted tires and be sure they are rated for the load the trailer can legally carry. If you buy used, take it to a tire shop and have them look at the tires. Trailer tires usually dry rot before the tread wears out.
Brakes. Not only is it unsafe, but it is illegal in most locations to tow a large trailer without functioning brakes on at least one of its axles. Be sure they are in correct working order — when buying used, you will want to inspect them or simply plan to service them before hauling your first load.
Let me mention our third trailer-buying experience. You would not think it could get much better, but it does. We upgraded once again, to what we thought was a nice gooseneck metal stock trailer with a dressing room — of sorts. I’ll explain in a bit.
We eagerly set up our camping quarters — complete with a built-in cabinet, shelves, and a closet to hang clothes and stow our gear. Curtains with a whimsical outdoor scene adorned our windows, and we placed a comfy mattress topped with flannel sheets and a quilt up in the neck. We went on our first camping venture, and when we arrived, there was road dirt all through our lovely dressing room. This particular trailer had a dividing door between the box stalls and the dressing room with a 1 1/2-inch opening at the bottom of the door and a 6-inch opening at the top. Apparently, this caused a strong suction for road dust.
Thankfully, my husband is quite handy. He ended up spending a couple days closing up the bottom opening with angle iron and the top with plywood.
I think we are through the trailer-buying learning curve now, and hopefully there are no more unpleasant surprises. We have discovered a lot over the last many years, and I hope that some of our experiences will help guide you through the process of acquiring a livestock trailer.
One way to see many kinds of trailers in one place is to attend a Quarter Horse Congress, Equine Affaire, Horse Expo, or other livestock trade event. You can run a Google search to find locations across the United States. The bigger events will have acres of trailers brought in for buyers to check out.
Here’s hoping you have many happy farming adventures. There are a few lessons to learn along the way, but I for one would not trade my country life for anything. I even eventually gave up the manicured nails!
Faith Schlabach and her husband, Adam, reside in Virginia where they raise mini and standard Jersey family milk cows. Faith has trailered all over — endurance riding, trail riding and delivering cows — with only occasional forays into hairy situations.
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