Back to basics calf care: how do I know if my calves are fit to ship?

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

Transport is stressful for cattle of all ages. Possible co-mingling with a new group of calves and exposure to new pathogens, and even the actual activities of transport like loading, unloading, and being in transit are all things these animals have to be able to handle if they’re moving to a new farm location or being shipped to market.

In order to ensure the best possible transportation experience, it’s absolutely essential that only healthy animals leave the farm. But how do you know if your calves are fit to travel?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has regulations for the humane transport of livestock that must be followed, and animals that are considered compromised or unfit can only be transported under special circumstances.

A calf is compromised if it displays one or more of the following conditions:

  • Bloated but no signs of discomfort or weakness
  • Acute frostbite
  • Is still healing from a procedure like castration or dehorning
  • Shows signs of lameness other than what is described as unfit (see below)
  • Has a deformity or a fully healed amputation, but doesn’t show signs of pain from that condition
  • Displays any other signs of infirmity, illness, injury or a condition that might make the calf less able to withstand the rigours of transport

A calf is unfit if it displays one or more of these conditions:

  • Is non-ambulatory (can’t walk)
  • Has a fractured leg that prevents it from walking or causes it to show pain
  • Is lame in one or more limb, showing pain, halted movements, reluctance to walk or can’t walk on all four of its legs
  • Is in shock or dying
  • Has laboured breathing
  • Has a severe open wound or laceration
  • Is hobbled for treatment of an injury
  • Is extremely thin; shows signs of dehydration, exhaustion, hypothermia or hyperthermia; or has a fever
  • Has a hernia that hinders its movement, causes pain, touches the ground when the calf is standing, or has an open wound, ulceration or infection
  • Has an unhealed and/or infected navel
  • Has severe bloat that is causing pain or weakness
  • Has any other signs of infirmity, injury, illness or condition that cause the calf to suffer during transport

What do I do if I have compromised or unfit calves?

Calves that are compromised can only be transported in isolation from other animals. They must be loaded and unloaded individually without having to go up or down a ramp, and they can’t be taken to an assembly yard (or sales barn).

Unfit calves can only be transported at the recommendation of a veterinarian and only to a location where they will receive veterinary treatment.

Good transport matters for healthy calves too

New livestock transport regulations came into effect in Canada in February 2020.

Calves may be transported for up to 12 hours at a time as long as they aren’t subject to dehydration, starvation or exhaustion. After 12 hours in transit, they must be given feed, water and rest.

Calves eight days of age and younger under may only be transported once and can not be shipped to assembly yards (or sales barn).

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.