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Animal welfare group petitions USDA on interstate transportation of young calves

Brown dairy calves try to balance as they sway with the momentum of interstate travel.
Courtesy the Animal Welfare Institute
A group of dairy calves crammed into a travel trailer as they make a grueling 19-hour trip from Minnesota to New Mexico

Roughly half a million dairy calves were transported from seven states in the upper U.S. to calf-rearing operations in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas in 2022, according to an investigation conducted by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). As bird flu has been found in cattle, AWI says this problem is a public health issue that needs to be addressed.

The on-the-ground phase of the investigation, in which investigators followed a truckload of calves from Minnesota to New Mexico, revealed that most were under two weeks old when they were sent on the 19-hour trip.

Adrienne Craig is an attorney with AWI. She said at that age, travel is stressful, and their navels aren't yet healed.

"Having an unhealed navel indicates a very young age," Craig said. "Which means they are going to be vulnerable to infection, regardless of the pathway that it's entering."

In response, AWI has petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to establish fitness and transport standards for vulnerable animals transported via the Interstate system. International standards prohibit calves less than two weeks old from long-distance transport.

In addition to the stresses that come with such travel, they are more susceptible to diseases like the bird flu. And, because so many of them are coming from a broad range of cattle operations, they're mixed with other calves who are equally susceptible to infection.

Craig said those calves are exposed to high doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy—which can lead to drug-resistant infections.

"We're dealing with the consequences of zoonotic disease," said Craig. "You know, COVID-19, the bird flu… which has been passed to dairy cows at this point. There are broader consequences for public health that could affect everybody in the country."

Products from those calves may be found in dairy and beef aisles at grocery stores around the U.S., including in Wyoming.

When asked how Wyomingites may be able to avoid those products—which include milk, beef and milk-fed veal, among others—she said that buying local is the way to go.

"It's hard to source where a beef product is coming from," she said. "But you can buy from local processors and farmers' markets, because you can talk with the producers and ask them what they do with their calves."

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

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