PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Lisa Munniksma
October 6, 2016

Picture a typical first-time trailer-buying scenario: You walk onto a sales lot to find 4 acres of trailers from 10 trailer manufacturers with 15 customization packages, see two salespeople walking toward you, and realize you’re completely unprepared for what’s about to happen. This is pretty accurate—if you haven’t done your research ahead of time.

You might have a list of reasons why you need to purchase a trailer as opposed to just borrowing one from a friend or paying someone to haul animals for you: competitions, breeding, new land that requires moving animals frequently, etc. Before you can even talk about making the leap to bringing home a new trailer, you need to know what you’re going to do with it. If you’re hauling horses to shows, you might want a fully enclosed horse trailer with living quarters, but if you’re taking sheep to the market, you might only need a low-profile stock trailer.

A good multipurpose option, according to Andrew Stanfield, chief marketing officer of Lakota Trailers, is a stock trailer.

Stock trailers usually have partially slatted sides—if not fully slatted—as opposed to the solid-sided trailers designed primarily for horses. These trailers can be used for long hauls to sales or short hauls to the veterinarian. You can load horses, cattle, sheep and pretty much any other farm animal, plus equipment and hay. This article will focus on purchasing a stock trailer, as it’s the most versatile and often the most appropriate for a small-scale farm.

The Size

Before you can look at trailers, you need to know what tow vehicle you will be using. For safety reasons, finding a trailer to match your tow-vehicle capabilities is most important. To determine the full weight of the trailer, Stanfield says to add the dry weight of the trailer—you can find this detail from the manufacturer—to the estimated weight of the animals you might haul and the equipment, water, hay and feed you’ll need for whatever trips you expect to take. This loaded weight can’t exceed the weight your tow vehicle can handle. Start your search with your maximum trailer size in mind.

The Hitch

Bumper-pull trailers and gooseneck trailers are the two typical hitch options. Larger trailers might have a fifth-wheel hitch.

“Bumper-pull trailers are typically a lower weight,” Stanfield says. “They just can’t haul as much,” though you typically don’t need as large of a vehicle to tow them.

Gooseneck trailers tend to be easier to maneuver, as they have a tighter turning radius. They generally have larger stock space, too, and many have storage area in the neck of the trailer or a whole living-quarters area up front.

The Frame

Trailer frames are generally made from one of two materials: aluminum or steel.

Steel frames are heavier, so they could require a larger vehicle but also will support more weight. “A steel frame is going to be more prone to rust and break down faster,” Stanfield says—particularly in wet climates and in areas where roads are salted in the winter.

Aluminum frames have one main downside, according to Ron Gill, associate department head for Extension Animal Science at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: the instability of the welds. “Aluminum welds have a tendency to break in repeated high-stress areas,” he notes, pointing out the axle mounts in particular. Rivets are now often used in trailer construction rather than straight welding.

The Sides

Stock trailers have slatted sides: some with a solid wall at the bottom and slats or tubular metal toward the top and some with slats or tubular metal from floor to roof.

“Most people in the northern tier of states like solid sides because hauling livestock in subfreezing temperatures presents a unique problem,” Gill says. “In the southern tier of states, most prefer open or slat sides for exactly the opposite reason. The heat and humidity is more dangerous to the well-being of the animal than our kind of cold would ever be.”

The Roof

On the East Coast, you’ll most often see trailers with solid tops. Out West, you’ll find bow-top trailers: those with tarps or with a frame overhead but no roof. “The main reason we use them in the West is that they are lighter in weight and not as hot as solid-topped trailers,” Gill says. While bow-top trailers are safe, old or homemade trailers with no top are not, as animals can jump or climb out.

The Floor

Trailer flooring is a major consideration, as a slick or weak floor can lead to a disaster. Wood-plank floors are common and usually come with rubber mats, as bare wood is slippery when wet. Wood planks can deteriorate and rot and need to be inspected regularly. Rubber planks—like wood planks but made from recycled rubber—are a newer flooring material. Gill says these have a cleat to reduce slipping.

Aluminum floors with a nonslip surface “are very effective at reducing slipping but can be hard on hooves when new,” Gill says. Aluminum floors don’t absorb road heat or vibration, which can put stress on animals.

The Entry

Animals can load into the trailer by stepping up into the trailer or by walking up a ramp. The decision between these two depends on the animals you’re moving, your facilities and your personal preference.

“Ramps are nicer for the animal,” Stanfield says. “They cause less stress. If the animals don’t want to get in and they have to jump up into the trailer, that makes it more difficult.”

Another positive for ramps, Gill points out, is that small animals might be able to make an escape under the trailer. “That can be fixed by proper construction of the loading area,” he says. But unless each loading and unloading area you go to is constructed with a trailer ramp in mind, it’s difficult to maneuver one into place, and step-up trailers are the better option.

The Doors

Handling doors and latches on the trailer is dangerous, as you don’t want to put yourself between the animals and the door or between the door and a fence. Gill appreciates slam latches on trailer doors: “When the gate is swung closed, it needs to latch [so] the hauler can close additional pins or latches to keep the gate from possibly coming open during transit.”

The Pricing

All of this trailer-buying talk sounds great, but you have to consider your budget, as well. You can shell out as much as $55,000 for a new gooseneck trailer with living quarters or as little as $5,000 for a new 12-foot bumper-pull stock trailer. Factor in insurance and registration, if your state requires those.

A warranty should also be on your shopping list. “It’s a good indication of whether the company believes in the product,” Stansfield says.

Secondhand & Safe

When it was time for me to upgrade my livestock trailer, I purchased a used gooseneck for my 3/4-ton truck. I asked a friend to look it over—wiring, flooring, tires, plus any other safety-related items I didn’t think of. He did, said it was good and sent me on my way. On my first trip, I got a flat tire due to dry rot. This is typical of what you can get yourself into by buying second-hand.

If a used trailer is more within your budget than a new trailer, apply all of the considerations in this article, plus a few more:

Know Where The Trailer Came From

“Make sure it has a clear chain of ownership,” says Ron Gill, associate department head for Extension Animal Science at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. “Stock trailers are often stolen and resold in other parts of the state or nation. If it is one that has been stolen and is traced to you after purchase, there is a good chance you will be out the purchase price because the trailer will be returned to its rightful owner. Make sure you get a bill of sale, at a minimum, when you purchase a trailer. If you do not know the person selling you the trailer, either make a copy of his driver license or take a picture of it for your reference if needed.”

Have The Trailer Inspected

As my story suggests, have a professional look at the rig before you purchase it. “Regardless of where you purchase a trailer, unless it is new, take it to a trailer-repair shop and have it thoroughly inspected and repaired before you start using it,” Gill says. Wheel bearings, hubs, spindles and lugs need an inspection, too.

Ensure It’s Safe

The trailer needs to have basic safety equipment that is in good shape: safety chains and an electric-control breakaway system. Test the electrical brakes, too. Be sure the trailer is wired properly, and learn how to rewire the plug. (I learned how after someone installed a new plug incorrectly and the trailer brakes locked up every time I put the truck in reverse.)

Look Things Over Yourself

Check the flooring from the inside and underside of the trailer. “Make sure the metal is sound and all welds/rivets are intact,” Gill says. “Particular attention should be paid to the metal supporting the floor, axles, and their hangers and springs, as well as the tongue and hitch. Additional scrutiny needs to be paid to the gates, hinges and latches on the end gate and partition gate.” Watch for protrusions and sharp edges that could injure an animal.

Test-Drive Your Trailer

Take the trailer for a test drive with the truck windows down so you can listen for odd noises. Be sure you like towing this trailer with your vehicle.

Replace The Tires

Get new tires if the existing tires are more than five years old. “Older tires are more likely to separate or experience blowouts,” Gill says—as I experienced.

Shop ’Til Ya Drop

The internet is the obvious first stop for trailer shopping. You can look at manufacturers’ websites, dealerships’ websites and online classified ads to narrow down the features you want for the price you can pay. Most manufacturers sell their trailers to trailer dealers, and then the dealers sell to the consumer. It makes sense to shop around for brand names, as well as across dealerships.

Shop local, too. The trailer dealers in your area can offer a wealth of knowledge about the models and features that are out there, and they’re likely to know about new models coming out soon or specials that will be offered down the road.

Get your perfect trailer picked out and learn to operate it safely from someone with experience before you attempt it on your own. With the confidence to safely load and haul animals on your own, your trailer purchase can be something to look forward to.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.


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