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A Painful Subject

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Canada’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle lays out industry’s expectations about how cattle should be managed to ensure they are well cared for throughout their lives. This has value in explaining and defending our industry to regulators and the public. Canada’s current code was developed over 20 years ago, and industry practices, scientific knowledge and public interest in the welfare of livestock have evolved considerably since then. A new, updated draft Code of Practice is available for public comment until March 8.

The new draft code makes a much stronger statement about dehorning and castration. The current code recommends that producers castrate and dehorn at an early age, preferably before weaning, taking all precautions to avoid unnecessary pain during the surgery and suffering during recovery. The new draft requires that producers disbud calves as early as practically possible, preferably while horn development is still at the horn bud stage. After this, producers will be required to take steps, in consultation with their veterinarian, to mitigate pain. Similarly, it requires that calves be castrated before the age of three months wherever practically possible, and the use of pain control, in consultation with your veterinarian, when castrating bulls older than nine months of age.

Producers who castrate and dehorn before two to three months of age won’t be affected by this change. These procedures are much less invasive in young animals. The wound is smaller, there is considerably less blood loss, and young calves recover more quickly. There is also evidence that these operations may be less painful in young calves.

Common sense tells us that these operations hurt, but pain is hard to measure. This is especially true in prey species like cattle. Predators target very young, old, sick or injured animals, so prey species have evolved to be “stoic.” If it hurts, try not to show it, and hope the wolf chooses someone else. Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein (AAFC Lethbridge) and Dr. Joe Stookey (University of Saskatchewan) have used squeeze chutes equipped with strain gauges to measure how intensely animals struggle during castration as an indicator of acute, immediate pain. Chronic, long-term pain is much harder to measure. Researchers have found that dehorned calves do more head rubbing, head shaking and ear flicking than calves that have not been dehorned. Castrated calves stand, move and lie differently than calves that have not been castrated. These measurements are not perfect.

Anesthetic and analgesic drugs can help control pain. Anesthetic drugs (like freezing at a dentist) eliminate all feeling. Anesthetics (e.g. Lidocaine) help to reduce the pain of surgery, but wear off relatively quickly and are challenging to use. They need to be injected very carefully and precisely around the horn base or in the scrotum, so they may require more restraint so that the person with the needle doesn’t accidentally inject him- or herself. Analgesics (Metacam, Anafen and Banamine) may be a better option for producers. These don’t eliminate all feeling, but do reduce the pain that occurs after the surgery. They can be injected intramuscularly and last longer than anesthetics.

Most of the research into pain control for castration and dehorning has been done in dairy calves that were weaned at birth, or in feedlot calves. Little or no research has been done in young beef calves in a herd environment. No one knows whether the relief that beef calves get when they return to their mothers and nurse may also help to eliminate pain-associated behaviours. The benefit of analgesic drugs with different methods of castration (bands versus surgical) is also unknown. This is important, because the chronic pain associated with banding is believed to last much longer (weeks) than the drug (hours). Some experiments are studying the benefits of in-feed analgesics, but this won’t help with nursing calves on pasture.

The BCRC plans to fund some research with Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein to gather physiological, behavioural and performance data in beef calves (castrated surgically, with bands, or uncastrated) at zero, 60 or 120 days of age in a production environment. The impact of providing an analgesic (or not) will also be studied, as well as how animal responses are impacted when calves are branded at the same time. Followup measurements on calves from each group will assess the long-term impacts of these procedures and medications. The results of this research will help to inform future revisions to the code.

Please read the draft Code and give your feedback before March 8, 2013. Comments are open to the general public, so it is critical that producer voices are also heard.

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