Transportation and health of baby calves

Transportation and health of baby calvesLoading and unloading calves can be difficult, especially when using large trucks with calves less than a week of age.

"Calves almost have to be handled one at a time," says veterinarian Greg Goodell, of The Dairy Authority in Greeley, Colo. "They cannot stand well. Sides of truck have to have the wind blocked, leaving only the top portions open for air exchange. No direct wind or rain should hit animals of this age."

The cleanliness of these trailers — and the bedding — is also paramount for young calves with an underdeveloped immune system. "Sanitation is 100-fold more important in this age group than older calves," Goodell says. "Salmonella and E. coli are huge players, but all pathogens can be an increased risk in this age. Colostrum is a must before transport."

New guidelines from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association offer important advice for how to handle calves during this critical time.

Important reminders

The new guidelines suggest delaying scheduled procedures until at least a week after transport.

"Vaccination, dehorning… all adds to the stress load of the calf and needs to be reduced to the largest extent possible," Goodell says. He suggests that if calves are one week of age or younger, to feed 2 gallons of colostrum when they are born and do no other handling or processing until at least one week post-transport.

The transportation guidelines have various recommendations for length of travel, and this will depend on different factors.

Goodell says he has seen one-week-old calves transported for 600 to 1,000 miles with very little death loss. "I almost think it's easier on the calf to haul one-week-old calves than it is to haul one- to two-month-old calves," he says. "I don't have any recorded data to support that claim, but my observations are that younger calves haven't developed a fear of anything yet and this may help keep stress levels down during transport." Likewise, he adds, calves that are four to five months of age that are well-vaccinated and carefully transported rarely suffer any losses."

Weather stress in the summer or winter can especially negatively impact young calves.

Goodell has seen death loss due to heat stress and cold stress. "During cold stress, wind must be kept off these calves at all times with the main adjustment being the amount of wind allowed over the top of the calf for cooling in the summer time," he explains. "During the summer, the number of calves loaded onto a truck must also be decreased to prevent losses from heat."

A comfortable environment

When transporting young calves, you must develop a gentler approach to cattle handling.

"People who drive cattle through the use of fear or physical contact (such as yelling, whistling, or using dogs) will always have more injuries and dead calves, especially in the one- to twomonth-old calves," Goodell says.

And when they get to their destination, there needs to be a comfortable environment to rest with access to shelter, dry bedding, water and feed, which is important no matter the age. Make sure that the younger calves get a milk feeding if they haven't been weaned yet.

Goodell agrees that handling makes the difference in transporting young calves.

"Gentle, gentle, gentle!" he implores. "It's amazing how well baby calves can tolerate transportation with an excellent colostrum program and very gentle handling. This requires patient handlers and a facility designed for young calves."

Transportation Guidelines

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Associations" Gold Standards III program outlines these guidelines for dairy calf transportation:

• Newborn calves should be dry, able to stand and at least 24 hours old before transporting.

• Wash and disinfect transport vehicles between hauls with a recommended disinfectant for animal facilities.

• Prepare floors of transport units to promote secure footing and absorption of urine and manure, using sawdust, wood shavings, straw or sand.

• Avoid scheduled procedures such as vaccinating or dehorning for at least 1 week prior to transport (except for intranasal vaccines, which can be administered to boost interferon levels and help in preventing respiratory disease at the time of shipping).

• Schedule trips to minimize number of hours cattle are on the truck.

• In hot weather, schedule hauling at night or in the cooler part of the day.

• If traveling for more than 24 hours with cattle four months of age or older, stop at a clean facility for a feed and water break for a minimum of five hours.

• For trips longer than 11 hours, employ tandem drivers to avoid keeping animals on the truck for extra hours of mandated driver rest.

• Avoid any unnecessary stops.

• When hauling in cold weather, cover up to 1/2 to 2/3 of the holes in the trailer to reduce wind chill. However, do not cover all holes, which would be detrimental to air circulation and quality.

• Use as many gates as possible in the trailer to keep animals separated in small groups and avoid the possibility of bunching or piling during transportation.

See the new and previous Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards at:

Geni Wren is editor of Bovine Veterinarian, a sister publication of Dairy Herd Management.