Reducing transport stress for surplus dairy calves

Avoiding dehydration is key
calendar icon 10 June 2024
clock icon 4 minute read

Editor's note: The article below is based on excerpts from a presentation at the 2023 Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference by Jessica A. Pempek, PhD, USDA-ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit, and Catie Cramer, DVM, Colorado State University.

Surplus dairy calves consist of all male and non-replacement female calves that are sold from the dairy farm soon after birth.

Although some surplus calves are sold directly to a calf-raising facility or processing establishment, most are sold through a third-party (live auction or livestock dealer) within the first week of life.

Approximately 80% of surplus calves are transported from source dairy farms in early life. An increasing number of dairies are electing to breed dairy cows with beef semen (“beef on dairy”), resulting in a greater proportion of surplus calves leaving the source dairy farm compared to previous years.

After they are sold from the dairy farm, surplus calves generally enter one of three production chains: “bob” veal (processed at 3 weeks of age), “special-fed” veal (processed at 20 to 22 weeks of age), or dairy-beef (processed at 12 to 14 months of age).

Calves in the US are transported at three days of age, on average. The only federal law regulating transportation in the US is the Twenty-Eight Hour Rule, whereby surplus calves and other food animal species cannot be transported more than 28 hours without access to feed or water or the ability to rest (49 U.S. Code§ 80502).

Cattle can experience multiple stressors during marketing and transportation, including feed and water restriction, commingling, various handling techniques, and thermal stress. However, young calves have undeveloped immune systems, less mature physiological stress responses, and cannot thermoregulate well, which makes them especially susceptible to these stressors.

Calf handling

The following handling techniques are recommended for young surplus calves:

  1. place one hand around the rump and one hand under the chin; use the hand around the rump to apply gentle pressure to encourage the calf to move forward, while guiding the direction of movement with the hand under the chin
  2. walk beside the calf while gently running a hand up their spine and withers, moving caudally to cranially
  3. lift the calf by placing one arm around and under the rump and one arm under the neck to support the chest; carry the calf to the trailer; slowly bend down to gently set the calf in the trailer

The following are never acceptable when handling young calves: electric prods, sole handling by the ears and tail, dragging, throwing, kicking, etc.

The trailer environment and design can also play a key role in calf welfare during transportation. Calves may more easily and willingly enter the trailer if ramps are used; ramp angle should not exceed 25 degrees.

All walking surfaces should have adequate traction and be free of moisture and debris to avoid slips and falls. Trailers should be clean and dry and have non-slip flooring and adequate bedding. A calf’s thermoneutral zone is between 60 to 78°F (15 to 26°C).

Prepare calves for transport

Fitness for transport, which the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) defines as “an animal’s ability to withstand transportation without compromising their welfare”, is a critical aspect to assess in young calves because the stressors experienced with transportation are compounded when cattle are sick or injured.

In addition to receiving high quality colostrum or colostrum replacer, as well as having access to milk and fresh water prior to transportation, calves should also be assessed for fitness for transport.

Trained caretakers should assess calves for the following prior to transportation: disease, dehydration, body condition, wounds, lameness, and ability to walk or stand easily. Conditions, such as disease (diarrhea, respiratory disease, navel, or joint inflammation), dehydration, lethargy, bone fractures, difficulty breathing, thin body condition, inability to walk or stand easily, open wounds, or severe lameness would all deem a calf unfit for transport.

Only calves that are well hydrated, free of injury and disease, and able to stand unassisted should be transported.

Milk and water availability

The lack of milk and water provision during all phases of transportation likely limits the calf’s ability to maintain normal blood glucose levels and hydration.

Calves that were dehydrated upon arrival to a “formula fed” veal facility had an increased hazard of preweaning mortality, and hypoglycemia was associated with increased mortality in calves with diarrhea.

In addition to maintaining normal glucose levels and hydration, milk provision is an important welfare consideration from the perspective of satiety. When given free-choice access to milk, calves will drink milk four to 10 times per day, on average.

By focusing on preparing calves for transportation, some of the negative consequences of transporting young calves can be mitigated.

Three preconditioning strategies can help support calves throughout transportation:

  1. Provide a milk feeding (2 liters or more) as close to transportation as possible
  2. Administer an oral electrolyte solution prior to transportation
  3. Provide access to clean and fresh water at all times prior to transportation

Feeding and management strategies to reduce fasting and increase calf comfort during marketing and transportation must also be prioritized to achieve more marketable animals and optimize surplus calf welfare in veal and dairy-beef production.


American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP). 2019. Guidelines: Transportation and fitness-to-travel recommendations for cattle. 

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