Ironically, the acceleration of modern technology that created confinement agriculture can also be utilized to replace painful management practices. When challenged by ranchers to provide them with an alternative to branding, a group of us at Colorado State University created digitized retinal images of cow retinas, images with more data points than human fingerprints (Golden and Shadduck, 2000).
Similarly, cattlemen could employ other biometric identifiers or electronic forms of identification such as microchips, given that all such methods provide permanent, unalterable forms of identification. These biometric and electronic forms of identification provide the additional advantage of facilitating trace-back in the event of disease outbreak. In addition, branding does not prevent cattle theft. In many places, in remote areas, rustlers will drive to ranches with a truck, cut fences, slaughter cattle, and steal them as boxed beef. Inherently conservative, ranchers have resisted moving to alternative methods of identification in spite of the overwhelming evidence that hot-iron branding is extremely painful (Schwartzkopf et al., 1997). If asked to justify the infliction of a third-degree burn morally, cowboys will cite the trade-off involved in living extensively in exchange for a short-term burn pain. However, in addition to the cost to the animal in terms of pain, there is an actual monetary cost to the industry. Branding has been estimated to cost the Canadian beef industry $3.57 per head or $9.5 million per year due to hide damage (Schwartzkopf-Genswein, 2000).
Knife castration of beef cattle is another painful management practice originating in antiquity. Typically, neither anaesthesia nor analgesia is utilized to control the attendant pain, which has been well documented (Zobell et al., 1993; Molony et al., 1995). Castration is done to reduce aggressiveness in male animals, thereby minimizing aggressive interactions and danger to humans, as well as to prevent unplanned impregnation of female animals, and to improve the quality of the meat. Sometimes castration is accomplished by placing elastic or rubber bands around the testicles, creating ischemia so that the testicles eventually die and shrivel. As a prolonged insult, banding appears to be more painful than knife castration, although bloodless. Ways of mitigating knife castration include raising and marketing young bulls, which has been done successfully; use of local anaesthetics and subsequent analgesics to mitigate pain; chemical castration; and immunological castration, which involves using the immune system to interfere with the spermatogenic cascade. Castration is particularly irrational economically, as the anabolic growth promotion of the testicles is often replaced by hormonal implants, which do not work as well as endogenous testosterone and which tend to be viewed with suspicion by consumers.
The difficulty of performing knife castration increases with the age of the animal. In Britain, it is permissible to castrate calves until eight weeks of age without anaesthesia. It is sometimes argued that newborn or young animals do not feel pain. This is extraordinarily implausible, given that calves are born precocious, i.e. "hit the ground running" in all biological systems. It defies belief that only the ability to feel pain conveniently does not exist until the animal is two months old. What is true is that as the animal gets older, greater vascularization is present, making control of bleeding more of a challenge than in younger animals.
Dehorning is utilized to prevent injury by horned cattle to each other and to humans. When done to adult animals by cutting or gouging out the horns, the procedure is extremely painful, and creates a bloody mess. When done on young calves, so-called "disbudding" of the horn buttons can be accomplished less traumatically but still painfully by use of caustic paste, electric irons, or cutting. Anaesthetics and analgesics are virtually never used in the beef industry but are beginning to be used in the dairy sector where pain-relieving protocols are well documented (Faulkner and Weary, 2000). Of course, a simple alternative to dehorning is to genetically introduce the poll or hornlessness gene into one's herd.
There exist other mutilations that were historically more important than they are now. One of these was notching wattles of cattle for an additional form of identification. (Wattles are the loose skin hanging from the neck of cattle.) Unique patterns of notching were cut (again with no anaesthesia) to represent various ranches to which cattle belonged. In a similar vein, but less invasive, were notches cut into the animals' ears. (A similar form of identification is still used today with laboratory mice.)
A final mutilation used in the beef industry brings chills to the average human male when they learn of it. In cattle ranching, it is necessary to know when female animals are in heat. There are a variety of methods for heat detection, but one common method was to create surgically "gomer bulls." Gomer bulls are normal males whose penis has been deflected and then surgically attached to the animal's inner thigh. These animals, possessing the normal mating urge, will mount females who are in heat, but are unable to achieve penetration because of the unnatural position of the penis. One can only imagine what pain, discomfort or frustration results from this procedure, since there has been no investigation into it.
Note: This article originally appeared as part of Animal Welfare in the Beef Industry in the March 2017 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.