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Tail docking: Why some love it and many more do not

Dan Weary and Marina von Keyserlingk Published on 21 September 2010

Tail docking is still a common practice – the recent NAHMS survey of U.S. dairy farms shows that about 50 percent of dairy cows in the U.S. are docked. Of course this means that about 50 percent are not docked, and there is much debate about the practice.

To help foster discussion among dairy producers and document the most common reasons for why we should or should not be docking tails, we asked Progressive Dairyman readers to respond to an online survey. In this article we report back to you on the main results from this research.

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A total of 192 people responded to the survey. Of these 30 percent were producers, 23 percent veterinarians, 15 percent students, 4 percent instructors and 3 percent other dairy professionals; 25 percent of participants said they had no experience with the dairy industry.

Most (79 percent) of the people who responded did not support tail docking, 6 percent of respondents supported the practice and 5 percent were undecided. People were allowed to vote more than once; if we consider just those people who voted once, 82 percent did not support docking. Even if we just consider the votes coming from producers, we find that 64 percent do not support docking.

Respondents were able to give reasons for their votes. Common reasons for disagreeing with docking included the lack of good scientific evidence that docking improves cleanliness or udder health, that docking is painful for cows, that docking is unnatural and that tails are important for the cows in fly control.

For example, one survey participant argues that: “The best data we have indicates that [docking] is of no benefit to the cow or milk quality, may be detrimental to the cow due to inability to swish flies away or engage in visual communication with other cows, and is at least moderately painful under the best of conditions.”

Those who supported docking believed that it did help keep cows clean and that it made cows easier to milk. For example, one respondent suggests that docking “is an effective way to keep cows clean and prevent them from splashing manure everywhere.”

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Where does this take us from here? One important point is that the majority of people are against docking, helping to explain why many places around the world, including the state of California, have banned the practice.

One concern is that those who remain attached to docking continue to cite cow cleanliness as an issue, despite the large body of scientific evidence showing no positive effect of docking on cow cleanliness or udder health. The most recent results from the NAHMS survey actually show that farms that dock tails have dirtier cows than do farms that keep tails intact! Our industry needs to do a better job of getting these findings out to dairy farmers.

Next survey: Treating pain due to dehorning and disbudding in dairy calves
The developing horns of dairy calves are typically removed to reduce the risk of injuries to farm workers or other cattle that can be caused by horned cattle. Horns of calves 3 months old or older are normally removed surgically (“dehorning”) by scooping, shearing or sawing. Horn buds of younger calves are typically removed (“disbudding”) using a caustic paste or a hot iron.

There is considerable scientific evidence that all of these procedures cause pain. The immediate pain can be reduced using a local anesthetic to provide a nerve block – this procedure has been used safely for decades and costs just pennies a shot.

Pain can persist 24 hours or more; this longer-lasting pain can be reduced using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like the ibuprofen you take for a headache). Providing calves a sedative before the procedure can reduce handling stress and make the procedure easier to carry out.

In many countries, some pain relief is required. For example, Canada’s new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle requires that pain control be used. Approximately 18 percent of dairy farms in the U.S. report using pain-relieving drugs for disbudding or dehorning dairy calves.

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Should we provide pain relief for disbudding and dehorning dairy calves? Please share your views with other readers by participating in our online survey. In a follow-up article we will report results back to readers, along with the most popular reasons for agreeing and disagreeing with the practice. PD

Drs. Dan Weary and Marina von Keyserlingk are professors at the University of British Columbia and experts on the care and management of dairy cattle. They invite your participation in surveys on a variety of dairy cow welfare issues.

 

Dan Weary
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