Husbandry procedures

Several husbandry procedures routinely applied to cattle cause serious welfare concerns, because they are frequently painful, but are often performed without painkillers or anaesthetics, mainly to minimise costs.

Dehorning and disbudding

Cattle horns increase risks to handlers and risks of damage to carcasses and hides, and so are routinely removed by dehorning or disbudding (in calves, before horn buds have grown into horns attached to the skull). Polled breeds without horns do exist, especially for beef cattle, but are considered by some to be less productive, i.e. profitable, so horned breeds remain predominant.

Nearly all dairy calves are disbudded by cautery (hot irons) in their first few weeks of life. Alternatively, crude surgical techniques or corrosive caustic chemical pastes may be used. Older calves may have their horns removed via amputation.

All methods of dehorning and disbudding cause pain to calves, which can be shown with a variety of physiological and behavioural measures [1]. It is now clear that use of a local anaesthetic alone does not provide adequate relief. The most popular local anaesthetic, lidocaine, is effective for two to three hours after administration, and calves treated with a local anaesthetic have similar plasma cortisol (a stress hormone) levels to untreated animals, after the local anaesthetic wears off [1]. A combination of a sedative, local anaesthetic, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (a painkiller that affects the whole body) is needed to reduce the pain during disbudding, and in the hours that follow. However, these are often not used, to minimise costs [1-2].


Tail docking

Tails can become soiled with faecal material, and perceptions persist among producers that tail docking results in cleaner udders and less risk of soiling human milking staff. However, multiple large-scale controlled experiments have shown that docking tails provides no systematic advantage in terms of cow cleanliness or udder health [1].

Tail docking also causes acute pain. Sectioning the tail nerves can result in neuroma formation (inflammation of the nerve endings). Neuromas can cause chronic (i.e. ongoing) pain, similar to phantom pain experienced after limb amputation [2]. It also reduces a cow’s ability to control flies and to communicate.

Full tail-docking is prohibited in New Zealand, but tail tip amputation is allowed and persists. However, trimming the tail switch would provide similar benefits in terms of cleanliness and udder access [3].


  1. Schreiner DA & Ruegg PL. (2002). Effects of tail docking on milk quality and cow cleanliness. J Dairy Sci, 85(10), 2503-2511.
  2. Eicher SD, Cheng HW, Sorrells AD, et al. (2006). Behavioral and physiological indicators of sensitivity or chronic pain following tail docking. J Dairy Sci, 89(8), 3047-3051.
  3. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.

Ear tagging

Hot branding is uncommon for dairy cattle and must not be performed without pain relief according to New Zealand’s Code of Welfare – Dairy Cattle [1]. Freeze branding is more common. Ear tagging is mandatory. Both of these are likely to be painful [2].



Bull calves born to dairy cows may be castrated depending on the breed, and on their potential for the bull beef or steer beef trade [1].

Beef calves are usually castrated prior to three months of age, or at weaning at around six months of age. Most are castrated prior to three months using a rubber ring, which tightly constricts the testicular blood vessels, causing testicular death. After perhaps a month, the testicles drop off. Rubber rings may cause the most prolonged pain [1].

A small percentage are castrated surgically or using a Burdizzo. The latter is a large clamp designed to break the blood vessels and spermatic cords leading into the testicles, and probably causes the most severe, short-term pain. Local and systemic painkillers should be administered, but are often not given to minimise costs, even though these are not expensive [1].


  1. Stafford KJ. (2013). Animal Welfare in New Zealand. Cambridge, New Zealand: New Zealand Society of Animal Production.

Reproductive procedures

Prior to purchase or use of bulls for breeding, they may be tested for libido (sex drive) and fitness. Service (mating) testing involves placing one of more bulls in a pen with cows or heifers restrained in head bails (restraints). The number of copulations achieved by a bull are counted during a time period, typically 20 minutes [1]. Guidelines recommend cows or heifers may be mated up to 20 times each during this period, after being lightly sedated [2]. This is likely to be significantly stressful, and can compromise their welfare.

Additionally, semen may be collected from bulls for assessment or artificial breeding, via electroejaculation. A probe is inserted into the rectum which delivers a mild electric shock, causing ejaculation. This is also stressful [1]. This semen is then inserted via a long syringe deep into the vagina of a cow who is typically restrained within stocks. In order for the semen to be injected into the correct location, the operator also inserts an arm deep inside the cow’s rectum, effectively using it as an arm ‘glove’, to feel around inside the abdomen. This hand is used to locate the uterus and vagina and to position them for the semen injection, which is delivered via the other hand. Needless to say, such restraint and manipulation can be stressful for the cow, and can injure her if she moves unexpectedly.


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