In a recent issue of Dairy Herd Management a quote by Emily Meredith caught my eye — “YouTube-proof yourself. Don’t want to get caught in a compromising position? Don’t do something compromising.” This is a very important message, and failure to consider this has already been a factor in responding to the release of alleged animal-cruelty videos. Following the release of these videos, the agriculture industry responds with a similar theme of “this is not representative of normal practices.”
However, as a veterinarian you have to ask, if your clients’ farms are videotaped, if they are charged, will you be able to say that they are acting within normal and accepted practices? If they are not, they are a risk to the industry. The animal-cruelty videos released on dairy farms have exposed critical risk areas for animal care. These areas are downer-cow management and proper euthanasia procedures, cattle handling, dehorning and tail docking (see sidebar).
Downer cows are a real problem in the dairy industry. The sight of an injured animal unable to get up or walk properly is a very compelling image and is usually the result of a serious welfare problem for the cow. Has the farm developed a standard protocol for these cows? If a cow is down, does everyone on the farm know what to do and who to call for help? Do they know that this must be dealt with right away, that the cow should be assessed for injuries, and the flooring quality must be evaluated before the animal is encouraged to stand again?
Clearly communicating and preparing for these outcomes can prevent unnecessary suffering. Aspects of downer-cow protocols should include how to safely move down cows, and when and how to euthanize safely and humanely. In addition, no cow should be sent to slaughter that cannot stand on all four feet and have a body-condition score greater than 1. For guidelines on this, see the National Dairy Producers FARM program (nationaldairyfarmprogram.com). This can be simplified to one question you need to ask your producers: “Would you spray-paint your phone number on the cows that are shipped?” If not, why are you shipping that animal?
Talking to producers about the benefit of calm handling and examining the facilities for areas that may impede good animal handling can be a great way to add value to the veterinary- client relationship. For farms with staff it is very important that protocols on handling are developed and what not to do is communicated and documented clearly. As an outside observer, can you see areas that can be improved in cattle handling? Talk to them about how improving cattle handling can improve milk yield and speed up milking by improving milk let down. For a great training resource, talk to your Merck representative about the DairyCARE365 Training Series on cattle handling, developed by Merck and the University of Minnesota.
Dehorning and tail docking are two public-relations problem areas for the dairy industry. They involve pain and permanent damage to the animal. However, dehorning can benefit the animal. Tail docking does not. Numerous studies have been conducted to look at the impact of tail docking on cow cleanliness, somatic cell count and mastitis. Tail docking does not improve any of these factors. This is a tough discussion to have, but producers need to be aware of the implications. Tail docking is banned in several states., suggesting the practice is not sustainable. Producers often respond by saying, “People dock their dogs’ tails, so why can’t we dock our cows’ tails?” Let them know this practice also is also being challenged in other species. The veterinary associations of the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have official policies opposing tail docking of dogs. Tail docking of horses is banned in Michigan and New York. This problem is not going away so it is time to deal with it. Ask your clients, “why do you tail dock cows? What else can be done to meet this goal?” As an outside observer, perhaps you can identify areas of improvement. This may involve changing scraping routines, bedding or stall design.
Dehorning can be done with very little pain response. The use of a lidocaine block during dehorning and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as a follow up for the first six to 12 hours can effectively control the behavioral and cortisol response to dehorning. Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no drugs labeled for pain control in ruminants. For this reason, it is even more important that other steps are taken to ensure the procedure is as painless as possible. Talk to producers about dehorning before 8 weeks of age and providing lidocaine to reduce pain and minimize calf struggling. One practical approach is to tie up five calves, and administer lidocaine to each calf. By that time the lidocaine will have taken effect on the first calf and it can be dehorned.
To ensure dehorning at the proper age, some veterinary clinics offer dehorning services, with veterinary technicians traveling to individual farms. If cattle require dehorning after 8 weeks of age due to regrowth, a licensed veterinarian should conduct the procedure, with the use of lidocaine, followed by evaluation of dehorning practices to prevent future cases of regrowth.
In the end, the message to your clients should be simple — know the best management practices and follow them. Don’t leave yourself open to becoming an Internet sensation for all the wrong reasons.