Newborn Dairy Calves Endure Long, Grueling Journeys Across the United States

Calves on a transport truck.
Photo by Animals' Angels

Government records reveal that hundreds of thousands of dairy calves are routinely transported 1,000 miles or more, compromising animal welfare and human health.

Washington, DC—Every year, the dairy industry sends hundreds of thousands of calves — as young as 2 to 3 days old — on highly stressful journeys of a thousand miles or more, flouting international animal welfare standards and contributing to disease spread, according to a new analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

Nearly 9.5 million US dairy cows are involved in milk production at any given time. Instead of keeping young, unweaned female calves on the farms where they were born, large dairy consortiums in the Upper Midwest and other northern regions ship these “replacement heifers” to sprawling calf-rearing operations in the Southwest (where land is cheaper) until they are old enough to give birth and produce milk. Male calves and a majority of female calves deemed “surplus” are, if not immediately slaughtered for veal, similarly transported to calf ranches, where they are raised for several months before being slaughtered for beef.

“Hundreds of thousands of calves are regularly shipped long distances despite being at high risk of injury, infection, and death,” said Dena Jones, director of AWI’s Farmed Animal Program. “No federal regulation prohibits the long-distance transport of neonatal calves, and the main statute providing minimal protections for animals during transport — known as the Twenty-Eight Hour Law — is not actively enforced.”

To document one such journey, AWI partnered with the nonprofit organization, Animals’ Angels, to monitor an August 2023 shipment of 200 newborn calves on a 1,113-mile, 19-hour transport from a mega-dairy in Hancock, Minnesota, to a calf ranch in Texico, New Mexico. Animals’ Angels investigators trailing the shipment observed that the calves wore ear tags confirming they were around a week old. Most had their shriveled umbilical cords still attached, increasing the risk of infection. 

Within the crowded trailer, prone calves were observed being stepped on by others. Eleven hours into the trip, as the outside temperature climbed to 100 degrees, the investigators observed that all the calves were standing, with many bellowing — a sign of distress. Typically, these calves would nurse every two to four hours if left with their mothers, but they did not receive any milk or water during the journey. Nineteen hours after leaving the Minnesota dairy, the calves arrived in New Mexico, where they were unloaded out of sight of the investigators.

In a rulemaking petition filed today with the US Department of Agriculture, AWI requested that the department prohibit the interstate shipment of newborn calves and other animals who are sick, injured, or disabled; require veterinary inspection certificates for interstate travel of these vulnerable animals; and establish penalties for violating the rules. 

Neonatal calves, like most animals, experience significant stress during transport. In addition to dealing with vibrations, noise, fumes, and unfamiliar environments, they experience prolonged food and water deprivation, intense crowding, extreme heat and cold, and injuries from rough handling. 

The USDA itself has confirmed the negative impacts of transport on animal health and welfare: In a 2010 fact sheet, the department noted that “the handling, loading, transporting, and unloading of animals can have substantial detrimental efforts on their well-being by causing stress,” which “reduces the fitness of an animal.”

Since these stressors lower an animal’s resistance to infection, transporting young calves with immature immune function can contribute to the spread of disease, the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens, and meat contamination.

Forcing newborn calves to endure long-distance journeys, such as the one documented in the AWI/Animals’ Angels investigation, violates the standards of the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), as well as regulations of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. WOAH considers animals with unhealed navels, as well as those who are sick, injured, or disabled, to be unfit for transport.

In the United States, however, there are no fitness requirements for domestic animal transport. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law, first passed in 1873, provides that transported animals can go a maximum of 28 hours before they must be unloaded for feed, water, and rest. Even then, the law states that the animals can remain on the transport vehicle as long as these needs are met.

AWI requested transport records under public disclosure laws from seven of the country’s top 10 dairy producing states: California, Wisconsin, Idaho, New York, Minnesota, Michigan, and Texas. (Heavy redactions prevented AWI from including Texas in its analysis, however.) AWI also requested import records from New Mexico and California, both home to dozens of calf ranches.

Of these states, Wisconsin exported the highest number of calves under 1 month old in 2022 (nearly 235,793), followed by Minnesota (142,795). New Mexico received a higher number of calves (191,008) than California (139,422).

“In 2016, AWI was instrumental in encouraging the USDA to adopt WOAH criteria for the export of US farmed animals by sea,” Jones said. “We are now simply asking that those same standards be applied to farmed animals who spend many hours on the road within the United States.”

AWI previously requested that the National Milk Producers Federation, the largest US dairy farmer organization, amend its standards to include WOAH fitness requirements, but the group failed to do so.

Three federal departments — the USDA, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation — have a potential role in enforcing the Twenty-Eight Hour Law. Nevertheless, AWI’s research found that the law is not actively enforced by any of these departments, despite evidence that it is regularly violated.

In the past 15 years, the USDA has investigated 12 possible violations of the law, only one of which was referred to the DOJ.

Media Contact Information

Margie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
(202) 446-2128, [email protected]

The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere: in agriculture, in commerce, in our communities, in research, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.