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Create a smoother transportation experience for dairy calves

Curt Vlietstra for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2018

Don’t let their small size fool you; transporting dairy calves is tricky. If the process doesn’t go well, you can run into a plethora of problems, including bovine respiratory disease (BRD). BRD pathogens are found on virtually every farm at some level.

A healthy calf would be able to fight off those pathogens; however, stress from events such as transportation can compromise their immune system and make them susceptible to BRD.



Aside from being the leading cause of morbidity and mortality, BRD-infected dairy calves can suffer from lasting consequences like slower growth rates, older age at first calving and negative lactation performance. More serious cases of BRD can involve other viral agents like bovine viral diarrhea virus.

The immunosuppression from both BRD and bovine viral diarrhea virus makes infectious diseases such as pneumonia and scours a much more common and severe occurrence in calves.

Creating a transportation plan is paramount in order to avoid these disease disasters. The following are ways to provide a smooth moving experience whether you’re shipping calves a mile down the road or sending them across state lines.

Before transportation

Start with a clean, dry maternity area. If calves are exposed to a dirty pen, you’re already behind the game. Immediately after birth, calves should receive 4 quarts of colostrum and a second feeding eight hours later. Colostrum is critical for newborn calves.

The maternal antibodies found in colostrum provide excellent disease protection. Reproductive vaccines given to the dam later in gestation will stimulate an immune response that can provide even further pathogen protection in the colostrum.


When transporting calves around weaning (2 to 3 months old), I recommend giving them a modified-live virus vaccine about two weeks prior. This will give the vaccination time to stimulate and establish an optimal immune response.

Although it may be more convenient to simultaneously vaccinate and transport calves, the added stress will make the vaccination much less effective. The more you can space out stressful events such as dehorning, weaning, vaccination and transportation, the better off calves will be.

If you plan to send your animals to a custom calf raiser, try to get as much information about the operation as possible. Your calves are the future of the herd, and it’s important to find a calf raiser who is willing to work with you and meet your expectations. Form an agreement on management practices, health protocols and expected growth performance with the raiser you choose.

During transportation

Below are some key considerations when loading and unloading calves:

  • Provide calves with an adequate amount of food and water before they get in the trailer.

  • Clean the trailers regularly and ensure they are exceptionally bedded. Cleanliness is essential throughout the entire process, as young calves are usually transported before their immune systems are fully developed. Fresh bedding will also help calves maintain traction and prevent them from falling.

  • Avoid overcrowding the trailers, and practice patience throughout the entire moving process.

o For neonatal calves, carrying them into the trailer usually works best, since calves at this age are uncoordinated and can be easily injured.

o Calves being moved at weaning should be moved in groups of two or three.


  • Calves will remember handling experiences, positive or negative. Consider implementing a training session for employees or maybe a refresher course for yourself. Gentle handling is safer for calves and the people working with them.

  • Pay attention to the forecast, and avoid transporting animals during tough weather conditions.

  • Be mindful of how long the trip is going to take. Longer trips will require a feed and water break.

After transportation

When calves arrive at their new destination, try making the transition as comfortable as possible. Pay close attention to them, especially for the first few days. Calves should be taken to a newly sanitized, well-bedded pen with plenty of clean, fresh water and feed.

Refrain from overcrowding calves, and provide them with ample space to eat. The new facilities should have the capacity to keep calves protected from the elements and temperature changes while maintaining proper ventilation.

Sometimes stress is unavoidable and, even with the best transition process in place, calves can get sick. The sooner you can identify illness and treat it with a fast-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotic, the more likely the calf will have a quick and complete response to treatment.

Treatment records can help track disease incidence and identify repeat offenders. Ideally, cases of BRD should be recorded as soon as the event occurs.

Successful transportation boils down to careful planning and diligent management. Guidelines and important considerations can vary from herd to herd. A knowledgeable veterinarian who is familiar with your animals and their future destination will be able to help develop a protocol to fit your needs and environmental conditions.  end mark

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Curt Vlietstra
  • Curt Vlietstra

  • Professional Services Veterinarian
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
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