Reducing pain and stress becoming high priority in the cattle industry

Lindsay King
Tri-State Livestock News
With increased understanding and awareness of stress and pain and the negative effects of both, cattle producers are choosing methods of reducing those elements, like breeding polled cattle and performing procedures when they are least stressful. Getty Images.
Getty Images | E+

As prey animals, cattle typically hide their pain. Predators target the young, old and sick or crippled. This makes locating herd health issues in beef cattle a little more difficult. Researchers, many in Canada, are working to better understand pain in cattle and build best practices around what they find.

“We have made a lot of advances trying to understand pain and stress on calves,” said Dr. Murray Gillies, Canadian Association of Bovine Veterinarians president. “It is a fairly new area of research. A lot of pharmaceutical companies are investing in this type of research.”

Results from a survey distributed by McEndree et al., at Kansas State University indicate a majority of the U.S. population is concerned about the welfare of beef cattle.

“Pharmaceutical products available to mitigate pain in cattle have been slow to come to market, mostly since there has not been a demand for these products until recently,” said Jason Ahola, Colorado State University Beef Production Systems professor. “We would expect the number of pain mitigation products will become legal in the coming years, requiring investment by pharmaceutical companies to get label approval through the FDA.”

Two products developed by Boehringer Ingelheim, Metacam and Meloxicam, are proving to be effective in pain relief for cattle. Both are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs, typically used to reduce pain for castration and dehorning in cattle.

“Meloxicam is an oral agent and only labeled for use in pain from castration,” Dr. Gillies said. “It is the only drug of the two that is approved for use in the U.S. But Canada allows, even encourages, the use of both products.”

Metacam is labeled to relieve pain caused by scours, dehorning, mastitis, and surgery. It also works as an anti-endotoxin to fend off poison from infections. It is administered subcutaneously and is successful at reducing pain for multiple off-label issues as well.

“Veterinarians have a lot more freedom in Canada to make off-label prescriptions, like Banamine and Metacam,” Dr. Gillies said. “A lot of typical procedures, dehorning and castration, have codes and guidelines around them. Metacam and Meloxicam have helped producers adhere to them more efficiently.”

Released in 2013, the Beef Cattle Code of Practice was developed to mitigate pain and stress in cattle while necessary procedures are carried out. According to the National Farm Animal Care Council, the codes of practice are used as guides for best practices when it comes to caring for and handling livestock.

“These guidelines are not constricting enough that they make producers give specific drugs for certain procedures, instead they make simple statements such as: ‘animals over six months of age must have proper pain control when castrated,’” Dr. Gillies said. “This specific guideline went into effect just last January.”

The industry is at a point where procedures are generally approved by a veterinarian before producers carry them out. A lot of the codes of practice require a local anesthetic to be administered before castration or dehorning, regardless of the animal’s age. Other producers also choose to use caustic paste or banding to castrate and dehorn, as they are less painful and reduce stress on the animal during and after the procedure.

“I finally got my parents to move from the cowboy way of simply castrating with a knife to banding,” said Morgan Kuntz, Montana cattle producer. “We felt banding was the best way for us to mitigate chances of infection and pain in our calves.”

Management decisions greatly help reduce future pain for cattle herds. This includes selection for polled animals to avoid dehorning all together as Kuntz said her family has done for years, as well as castrating calves at an early age. The wound will be smaller when the animal is young, and they will bounce back significantly faster.

“We are definitely old school up here in Montana,” Kuntz said. “There are not a lot of mandates for pain mitigation and drug use. We do not use a lot of local anesthetic or anything like that. More emphasis is being placed on management while working our cattle.”

Many procedures cannot be avoided, such as tagging, giving vaccines and, in the U.S., branding. These procedures can be drawn out and painful when management of the process is not up to par, Kuntz added.

“On our operation we have moved from using a chute to a head and heel loop system,” Kuntz said. “We rope our calves, doctor and brand them and then release them. It has proved to be a lot easier on them when they do not have to bang around through a chute. Once they are about seven months old we go back to the chute system.”

Byron Templeton, a purebred Hereford producer at XTC Ranches in Saskatchewan, also ropes his calves for their first set of vaccines, tags and castrations. Since the calves are still small, skilled ropers expedite the entire process, reducing the amount of stress on the calves.

“By using pain medication when we castrate, dehorn and brand our calves, we have noticed they will mother up a lot quicker,” Templeton said. “And they are significantly easier to sort through and move when we take them back to their pastures, sometimes miles away.”

Some might say Canada is ahead of the U.S. in researching and implementing pain mitigation best practices. With the use of Metacam and Meloxicam, Canada is making leaps and bounds as producers take it upon themselves to administer pain relief as necessary.

“Pain is best managed proactively versus reactively, so it makes the most sense to implement Standard Operating Procedures up-front,” Ahola said.

Through the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act, veterinarians can work with producers to provide pain mitigation to cattle even if it is off-label use, Ahola added.

“For both castration and dehorning, cattle are supposed to receive both a local anesthetic and a peri-operative analgesia,” Dr. Gillies said. “For many Canadian producers, Meloxicam is their drug of choice in this situation.”

Templeton said he uses both Meloxicam and Metacam, both have been used to treat bovine respiratory disease also. Kuntz cites Nuflor as her drug of choice when treating both cows and calves out in the pastures, though it is only an antibiotic offering no pain relief. Many different drugs are included for use in the code of practice in Canada, most producers just turn to Meloxicam and Metacam first.

According to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, calves who receive both treatments for typical procedures have higher growth rates. They also experience less stress associated with the procedures during the healing process as well as fewer complications.

“The code of practice is not written in stone, they are mostly strong recommendations,” Templeton said. “As producers, it is part of our duty and responsibility to be good stewards of the land and handle our livestock properly. As part of the food chain industry, consumers are always watching us, and we want to be sure we produce a product we can be proud of and they can put their trust in.”