May 9 2024 03:24 PM

Transporting young calves is sometimes necessary, but we must ensure a successful journey.

Millions of calves, including replacement heifers, dairy bull calves, and dairy-beef calves, leave dairy farms every year. Calves are often transported at less than 1 week of age, and recent work in the western U.S. found that about 60% of nonreplacement calves are shipped at less than 24 hours of age. Transportation is stressful for cattle due to weather extremes, commingling, and limited feed and water availability. These stressors, combined with the young age at transport, require us to ensure calves are well-prepared for the journey from the dairy to their final destinations.

“Fitness for transport” is a term we often think of in market dairy cows; however, we also have some opportunities to improve the condition of calves that are transported. In a study our group did at Colorado State University, we found that almost half of calves transported had at least one health concern prior to leaving the dairy (diarrhea, navel or joint inflammation, and/or dehydration), and similarly high percentages of calves have been identified with health concerns after transport.

To determine if a calf can withstand transport, we must know the answers to two questions: “Is the calf well-prepared for transport?” and “Is the calf fit for transport?”

Provide a strong foundation

Preparing calves for transport involves excellent newborn care. This includes:

Colostrum: All calves, including dairy bull calves, should receive adequate colostrum in a timely manner that supports optimal immune function. These animals need the calories and nutrients from colostrum to tolerate transport and the antibodies to stay healthy throughout their early lives.

Navel care: As with all newborn calves, disinfect navels shortly after birth and keep the calf in a clean and dry environment, even if they are being sold. The navel acts as a “wick” and will soak up any germs from the environment, allowing direct access to the calf’s internal body. For calves that are getting on a trailer that might be dirty, good navel care is key to preventing navel infections.

Milk and water: Feed calves awaiting transport just like calves that will remain on the dairy. Providing a milk meal to calves shortly before transport can help them maintain normal blood sugar and hydration levels during transport. Calves should always have access to clean and fresh water prior to transport, and if possible, during transport.

Age: Recent research from the University of Guelph shows that older calves grow better and have fewer health issues after transport compared to younger calves. Retaining calves on the dairy for longer is not always possible, but waiting until calves are even a few days older can be beneficial.

These practices are standard on most dairies. However, sometimes it is easy to overlook calves that are leaving the dairy, especially if they are being sold. Having programs in place that ensure these procedures are correctly followed for all calves is critical, but it especially matters for calves that leave the dairy at a young age. Once the calf leaves the farm, our ability to make adjustments to its care or condition becomes severely limited.

Transport calves that are ready

Caretakers can be trained to conduct a physical exam on all calves to ensure they are fit for transport. The physical exam should assess hydration status, fecal consistency, navel and joint inflammation, and overall attitude, as well as identify other concerns such as illness, wounds, or injuries. Consulting with the herd veterinarian is key to ensure physical exams are performed correctly by all caretakers.

Dehydration, diarrhea, navel swelling, and depression or lethargy can be common in young calves prior to transport. Be sure you know that each calf:

Is not dehydrated: An easy way to assess hydration status is to check skin elasticity via a skin tent method. Pinch a fold of skin on the neck, rotate it 90 degrees, and then count the number of seconds it takes to flatten out. If the skin takes more than three seconds to return to normal, the calf is considered dehydrated. Dehydrated calves should not be transported and instead receive prompt treatment to restore fluids.

Is not sick: Only healthy calves should be transported. Pay special attention to watery feces that sifts through the bedding, as this indicates diarrhea and can affect young calves prior to transport. Do not transport sick calves; provide prompt treatment in accordance with your veterinary protocol.

Is not injured: Calves with injuries such as broken bones or wounds require prompt treatment (and potentially euthanasia) and should not be transported.

Is not depressed or lethargic: Calves that are not responsive to stimulation, dull, depressed, and/or lethargic likely have an underlying condition and should not be transported.

Does not have navel swelling: Given the young age that calves are often transported at, many are likely to still have navels that are wet. Although this is not ideal, take time to ensure that there are no signs of infection (heat, discharge, or pain when touched) and that the navel has been dipped in a disinfectant solution.

Can stand on its own: Do not transport calves that cannot stand on their own as they may be too weak or young to withstand transport.

Care requires commitment

We are responsible for providing good care to these calves so that they do not become sick or injured during transportation. Train all employees who care for calves prior to transport to ensure they have the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare calves for transport and assess fitness for transport. Consider sharing with caretakers the importance of providing excellent newborn care for calves who will be transported and ensuring calves are fit for transport. This can help create a culture of responsibility and care for all calves, even those that are transported off the dairy at a young age.

Revisit all protocols regularly to ensure compliance, and make training an ongoing process so that a culture of continuous improvement is created. Providing high-quality calf care prior to transportation and making good decisions about which calves are transported are essential to ensure that calves live a healthy, comfortable, and productive life.