Live Animal Trade Around the World

Published on: 08:40AM Jan 03, 2020

Contributor: Renee Toussaint

According to data collected by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global value of trade in live animals totaled $21.7 billion in 2017, a 141 percent increase over the total value recorded in 2000.  The types of animals involved in this trade included nearly 45 million hogs, 16 million sheep, just under 11 million head of cattle, about 5 million goats, 1.9 million poultry,  and  just under 324,000 horses. 

As of 2015, the top exporters of live cattle were France, Canada, and Australia, all with export value over $1 billion annually.  On that list, U.S. exports of live cattle were valued at just under $100 million, placing the United States in 17th place.

In 2018, the United States exported about $872 million worth of live animals of all species. That total consisted of 46,375 head of hogs to a variety of countries, with Mexico, Canada, Brazil, South Korea, and China as the top five destinations in that year.  Live hog exports were a little more than 1 percent of total U.S. imports of live hogs in 2018, entirely from Canada.  

U.S. exports of live cattle totaled 234,000 head in 2018, with Canada, Mexico, China, Pakistan, and Vietnam as the top five destinations.  The United States also imported 1.6 million head of cattle in 2018, exclusively from Mexico and Canada.

The large majority of such trade were of animals designated for fattening and slaughter in the destination country, particularly for animals traded between neighboring countries.  Most of the live animal trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico falls into that category, with the three countries’ hog and cattle sectors having become highly integrated in the last few decades since the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Those animals shipped between the three NAFTA member countries are generally moved by truck across land borders.

Smaller live animal shipments, especially into developing countries, tend to be animals intended to help bolster the productivity of that country’s dairy or livestock production through the introduction of improved genetics.  In 2018, only 11 percent of all of the live cattle exported from the United States were female dairy cattle, and less than one percent were breeding bulls.

With respect to annual milk production per cow, that figure is estimated at between 8,000 and 13,000 kilograms of milk annually in the most productive dairy sectors in the world, found primarily in developed countries such as in North America and Western Europe, although the Saudi and Israeli dairy sectors are also highly productive.  In contrast, estimated per cow yields ranged between about 100 kilograms per year in Chad up to about 1,400 kilograms per year in Lesotho and Congo within Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, according to data reported by FAO.

There are three major paths to importing higher quality genetics into a developing country’s livestock operations:  
•    Purchasing semen for artificially inseminating indigenous animals
•    Purchasing animal embryos for incorporating new genetics into herd
•    Purchasing breeding female animals to upgrade genetics in herd

Of the three approaches, the latter, trade in live breeding animals, has the lowest requirements for technical proficiency in animal breeding technology in the importing countries.  The other two options require the expertise and appropriate facilities for enabling artificial insemination or embryo transfer on an efficient and low-cost basis.  However, live animal trade requires the most complex and expensive transportation logistics to pull off.

Renee Toussaint operates a cattle ranch in Manatee County in southwest Florida, and is the lead farmer from Florida in the Farm Journal Foundation’s Farmer Ambassador program.  Renee has been involved in the live animal export business since 2005.  She specializes in introducing U.S. livestock into developing countries in South America, Asia, and the Middle East.  Some of the animals she ships are cattle originally from her own Strickland Ranch, but she also has arranged shipments of goats, sheep, horses, and pigs, depending on what is needed in the destination country.  Her goal is to help bolster the productivity and profitability of the livestock operations in the countries she works with.  Most of Renee’s deals are for small shipments of animals that travel by commercial cargo airplanes.

Internationally, much of the live animal trade moves by ocean-going ships. There are a handful of companies that operate animal carrier vessels designed specifically for the transport and care of animals for a period of days or even weeks.  Unfortunately, there are also many shipments made on ferries or other cargo vessels that were not purpose-built, and some of those voyages have ended in tragedies. In late November of 2019, a cargo ship carrying 14,000 sheep from Romania to Saudi Arabia capsized in the Black Sea, and less than 300 head of the sheep were rescued after the accident.

These types of incidents, and broader allegations of animal abuse during such shipments by both sea and land have prompted protests against live animal trade worldwide.  In 2003, New Zealand imposed a de facto ban on such trade, and activists in Australia are pushing their government to follow suit.  In the United Kingdom, proponents of Brexit have suggested that leaving the European Union will allow them to impose a similar ban, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not made an explicit commitment to do so.  U.S. shippers of live animals have to meet rigorous regulations on animal health imposed by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in order to conduct their transactions.

Renee believes that concerns about animal well-being should dictate safe and best management practices within the industry.  In fact, she believes that more strict rules on the vessels that carry livestock might be warranted since these large shipments have "live" cargo that move and the vessels that have proven themselves safe with great track records should help set the standard for the rest of the vessels which are often smaller and were not converted or built in such a way to be as safe as needed for transporting livestock.  The recent foray of into the direct ownership of cargo planes rather than contracting with existing companies may eventually mean that air freight rates for live animals might be reduced and made more competitive with ocean rates, drastically shortening the animals’ travel time.

Thanks to Renee Toussaint for help in writing this blog.