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8 ways to prepare and support young calves for transportation

Olivia Genther-Schroeder and Jill Soderstrom for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 May 2022

Rearing dairy calves has evolved over the last decade. Traditionally, calves were born, raised and lived on one farm for their entire life. In today’s industry, an increasing number of calves are transported to a separate growing facility, both near and far, within the first few days of life.

The transportation process can be an incredibly stressful event for calves, leading to disease and illness that could have lasting impacts on health and productivity. However, with a few simple management considerations before, during and after the transport process, calves can maintain their full genetic potential and have greater productivity later in life.



Producers and handlers should consider the following as they prepare for and transport young calves:

1. Have proactive biosecurity and sanitation protocols

Calves are born with a naive immune system, leaving them extremely vulnerable to disease-causing pathogens. Therefore, it is very important to proactively follow biosecurity and sanitation protocols that will give the calf the best chance to avoid illness.

Before the calf is born, the maternity area and any calf-delivery tools should be cleaned, sanitized and dried. A clean calving environment is the first line of defense against unwanted pathogens.

When handling newborn calves, managers should first sanitize their boots to remove any manure that could bring outside pathogens into the clean maternity area. Gloves must be worn. This safety measure protects both the animal and the handler from possible disease transfer through contact.

2. Start with an adequate quantity of high-quality colostrum

Once the calf is born and the navel has been dipped in a 7% tincture of iodine solution to prevent infection, it is crucial to provide an adequate quantity of high-quality colostrum to the calf within the first two hours of life. The passive transfer of rich antibodies from the cow’s colostrum to the calf is the most critical step in setting the calf up for success, both for the transportation process and later in life.


3. Offer a hearty feeding with supportive prebiotics and probiotics prior to transportation

After a calf receives colostrum, it should soon be introduced to a nutritious, quality milk replacer. Choosing a milk replacer with a combination of prebiotics and probiotics, as well as adequate vitamins and trace minerals, can support the calf’s microbiome, which is essential to the immune response during a stressful event like transportation. This gives the calf the greatest chance to fight off unwanted pathogens and maintain good bacteria in its gut.

The transportation process from when a calf is loaded until it is unloaded can be anywhere from a few hours to multiple hours, meaning the calf will likely miss a feeding. Because young calves do not have caloric reserves like adult animals, it is important to offer a hearty feeding of milk replacer shortly before loading to deliver both calories and hydration to the calf for the duration of the drive.

4. Consider electrolytes

Dehydration is a concern for all animals in the transportation process, especially young calves. Knowing this, offering electrolytes in addition to the liquid the calf is consuming from the milk replacer can be a beneficial step in avoiding dehydration and supporting the immune response, which is important in combating pathogens.

5. Provide clean, dry and comfortable transportation

Whether calves are moving a few miles or hundreds of miles, it is important they are kept as comfortable as possible to avoid any unnecessary stress. A clean, dry and comfortable trailer is paramount. Make sure the trailer has been cleaned, sanitized and has enough time to dry. Then, the trailer should be prepared with adequate bedding for the transportation climate. The proper amount of dry bedding is the most important step in preventing cold or heat stress. Dry bedding also invites the calf to lay down while the trailer is moving, which can greatly reduce stress endured by the calf.

6. Prepare the growing facility for new calves

Before calves arrive at the growing facility, the receiving area and housing should be cleaned and sanitized. Calves are already exposed to outside pathogens during transportation through commingling with other calves in the trailer, so providing a clean area will reduce further exposure to diseases.

7. Provide extra care when necessary

Upon arrival, handlers should first inspect all calves as they are being unloaded and note any that may be exhibiting extra signs of stress, illness, lameness or dehydration. At that time, the managers at the new facility can offer further care and preventive practices.


8. Nutrition and hydration are key

Once the calves are unloaded into their new respective homes, they should be fed immediately. During the transportation process, the calf’s body is stressed. Blood cortisol and white blood cells increase during transit, which requires a lot of energy. Providing the same milk replacer they received prior to transportation, which contains a combination of prebiotics, probiotics and adequate vitamins and trace minerals, can further support the microbiome and help the immune system response.

That full feeding of milk replacer should be followed by hydration. Calves can be offered electrolytes again, but at the very least, they should have free access to drinking water. Depending on the length of transit, calves can remain dehydrated for long periods after arrival, and without proper rehydration they can be more vulnerable to cold stress, illness-causing pathogens and succumbing to scours.

Talk with your calf and heifer specialist to develop a plan that works for your operation.  end mark

Jill Soderstrom works in dairy technical innovations at Purina Animal Nutrition. Email Jill Soderstrom. 

Olivia Genther-Schroeder
  • Olivia Genther-Schroeder

  • Senior Manager, Dairy Feed R&D
  • Land O’Lakes Inc.
  • Email Olivia Genther-Schroeder