Proper Transportation of Young Calves

Published on Thu, 01/24/2019 - 12:25pm

 Proper Transportation of Young Calves.

 By Bruce Derksen for American Dairymen Magazine.

 While it used to be that calves were born, raised and lived their lives on the farm of origin, times are changing and with work processes of today’s dairy, many calves are transported to a separate rearing or growing facility within the first few weeks of their lives.  It has become critical to have a properly based plan for transporting these young calves from one facility to another as this process varies greatly from the transport of adult cattle. It is a fact that stress breeds illness in livestock.  Neo-natal calves are immune-suppressed and as such have a harder time dealing with the stresses of transportation than older cattle. 

It is a fact that stress breeds illness in livestock.  Neo-natal calves are immune-suppressed and as such have a harder time dealing with the stresses of transportation than older cattle.  Stress hormones or cortisol are related to episodes of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and mortality in calves, with BRD pathogens found in varying degrees on every farm.  Healthy calves are usually able to defend against these pathogens, but the stresses of transportation can make them susceptible by stifling their immune systems.  In addition, transportation stresses in calves less than a month of age can cause dehydration and body weight loss.  Building a safe and viable transportation process for these young calves is crucial in avoiding disease issues.
Numerous topics can be addressed before transporting young calves.  Holding facilities should always be kept clean, free of drafts with an abundance of proper bedding.  Dirty pre-transport conditions put calves at a disadvantage even before they get on the truck.  Calves should be old enough to easily walk on their own before even considering transporting them.  Arrange a feeding of milk or milk replacer on the morning of transport, preferably as close to departure time as possible, with some producers suggesting the use of extra feedings of colostrum in younger calves as the maternal antibodies provide excellent disease prevention.  For calves 2 to 3 months of age, some veterinarians recommend vaccinating them with a modified live vaccine approximately 2 weeks before transport.  This will give adequate time to stimulate the optimal immune response.  
Ensure the transport being used is in good repair with no sharp edges or projections that can cause injury or bruising.  As young calves are often transported before their immune systems are fully developed, cleanliness is again vital.  Ensure flooring has proper grip and offers a comfortable place to lie down as neo-natal calves prefer this.  Leave plenty of space for each calf, use separate compartments and never enclose them with other classes of livestock. 

When loading young calves remember they have not yet developed a following or herding instinct.  Under no circumstances use an electric prod, biting dogs or throw or drag calves on or off transport.  Patience is the key word with the safest and easiest way to handle very young calves being to manually carry them.  With older calves, move small groups as their close comforts will ease stress levels.
If possible, plan to avoid extreme weather conditions throughout the entire process and use the most direct route over good roads.  On longer transports, make checks on the animals every 2 to 3 hours.
When unloading, handle the calves in a similar way to loading.  Preferably use a closed sided ramp with a gradual incline for safety.  Carry the youngest and gently move the older calves in small groups.
If your farm is the destination point, prepare a draft free holding area with clean bedding and access to fresh water and feed or milk and milk replacer for very young calves.  This is also a good opportunity to introduce a palatable hay to their diet.  Using a separate holding area will accomplish two goals by letting the young calves get acclimated to their new surroundings and maintaining a bio-security from other animals on your property.
Even when you’ve done everything right, avoiding all stress is impossible and calves still can get sick.  Remember, they require ongoing supervision so the earlier you identify and address potential health issues, the quicker the animals will respond to treatment.  They may be small, but they are sturdy enough to tolerate the stresses of transportation if there is a proper management plan in place.  Completing this safe transport process is a vital step in providing these animals an excellent start to the next stage of their lives.