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TAIL DOCKING: The Long and the Short of it!

Opinions on tail docking cover the full spectrum of views. You might think that there would be a clean division of preferences between On-farm and off-farm thought leaders. This is really not the case. Not all dairy managers and animal care practitioners are in support of tail docking. Not all consumers – especially those familiar with the practice in other species are against it. In reviewing the literature, you can find support or dissension within all sectors. Having said that, time doesn’t stand still and the time is coming for a legal decision.

Clean or Mean. What is the Verdict?

The case for tail docking does not boil down to a simple conflict of the dairy community versus the non-agricultural camp. For a long time, it never really was settled which side was right –regardless of where the support came from. There were people from both sides, within both camps.

One clear shift is that research is becoming more aligned against the practice of tail docking. As long ago as 2002, the Journal of the American Dairy Journal published “The Effects of Tail Docking on Milk Quality and Cow Cleanliness” D.A. Schreiner and P.L Ruegg). The abstract stated:

“There was no significant difference between treatment groups for somatic cell count. The prevalence of contagious, environmental, or minor pathogens did not differ significantly between treatment groups. This study did not identify any differences in udder or leg hygiene or milk quality that could be attributed to tail docking.”

How Are Opinions Formed?

Here at The Bullvine we are well aware that scientific support does not necessarily sway consumer and public opinion, but two things may be having an effect on this situation. First off is that we all tend to respect opinions of those that we feel are well-informed, credible and unbiased. In the case of tail docking, it certainly carries weight when veterinarians – who may be closer to the general public than dairy farmers are— take stances against the procedure. Secondly, the scientific data is achieving critical mass on tail docking. Let’s look at these two areas.

Tail Docking is Tailing Off with Veterinarians

The country’s leading veterinary organizations have long held opinions against tail docking. The American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents over 88,000 veterinarians, came out against tail docking in 2004. They raised concerns about the pain and distress it can cause animals. The organization’s 2014 review on the welfare implications of tail docking on cattle cites 34 studies, surveys, and positions taken on tail docking. It is interesting that the review included that there is a general lack of perceived benefits to docked cattle over intact cattle. This included the often cited claims regarding cleanliness, somatic cell count, or udder health. That leaves tail docking as a management procedure that has no benefit.

However, even within the veterinary association they did not have a unanimous decision. It was a contentious discussion each time it came up,” says Riddell and reports that the contention continues. At this time, “the committee has reviewed but not reconsidered that 2010 decision.”

Science is Achieving Critical Mass

The original cow sense position held that those working herd-side concluded that long tails make milking more hazardous for workers, increased the dirt and germs on udders and contributed to poorer milk quality. In carrying out their responsibility to members, national organizations such as NMPF’s board of directors sought and continue to seek direction from animal welfare committees made up of scientists, industry representatives, and farmers. There is growing proof, scientifically supported, that is swaying opinion toward ending tail docking. The following points are taken from published studies:

  • Leptospirosis in milkers has no relationship to tail docking (Mackintosh, 1982)
  • No studies have shown statistical differences in udder cleanliness or somatic cell count (SCC) (Eicher, 2001 and Tucker, 2001)
  • While leg cleanliness scores were improved in docked cattle, no statistical differences were shown in SCC, udder cleanliness, and intramammary infections (Schrader, 2001)
  • Conversely, tail tip necrosis was found in one Ontario slaughter plant, with 3.4% having infections (Drolia, 1991).
  • Tail tip lesions occur most often in cattle with intact tails on slats, followed by cows with docked tails on slats (Schrader, 2001).
  • Two studies found no differences in performance of docked versus intact cattle on slats (Grooms, 2010 and Kroll, 2014).

Legislation Forecasts the Tail End of Tail Docking

Fifteen years ago, the issue of tail docking was not deemed a high priority and was largely left to producers’ choice. It has, however, become much more front and center with the growing public concern over animal treatment. Seven years ago (2009) California banned the practice of tail docking. The National Dairy FARM program established by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) set 2022 as the expiration date for tail-docking. As with many things that have a far off horizon, it was easy to become complacent and not proactively prepare for the end game scenario. That 2022 date has since been moved forward to January 1, 2017. The support for the move includes high profile commercial enterprises, including Walmart, Chobani, Kroger, and Starbucks. With them taking public positions against the practice alongside NMPF, it would appear, therefore, to be industry wide support. Not quite so.

Are the Dairy Industry and the Public Still divided?

Recently much more reviews and literature are being published that raise animal welfare concerns. Data is being collected regarding pain from “mild distress” or a “Mild response” to “discomfort”. As happens with human amputees, one study found phantom pain following an amputation, when tested in sensitivity to heat or cold. In some cases, gangrene and tetanus have been reported in association with tail docking. Studies have also been done to see if there were differences in stress levels between heifers that were docked and three-month-old calves that were docked. No statistically significant higher blood cortisol (stress) levels were found.

Looking further into tail docking, we come to how it affects cattle behavior. Studies have reported that tail docking has a limiting effect on normal signaling behavior. As well, tail docking significantly affects fly control, with more flies found on docked young cows and calves.

Thus, reviews are finding that the benefits of tail docking are being outweighed by the problems. Alternative management solutions are better answer to tail problems. For example, lower stocking density would lower the risk of tail trampling.

“Is The Tail Wagging the Dog?”

It often seems that, by the time the problem has achieved spotlight status, we are already too late in determining how the situation got to this level of crisis. On the one hand, it is argued that consumers are largely unaware of the reasons tail docking is being done. Their only exposure may be with dog breeding, where it is largely cosmetic or to retain show dog characteristics. While more transparent communication may have helped, at this point it could be too little, too late.

Also weighing on the minds of observers is the question, “Why is a producer-led organization doing something to limit management options?” First thought would be that they would be on the “other” side! A recent article in Agri-Talk addressed this point, “NMPF’s CEO Jim Mulhern told the crowd at the NMPF/DMI annual meeting that he knew it would be unpopular, but this was a case of leadership where they needed to put a hot topic behind them. He also saw it as a chance to make one decision, rather than a patchwork of requirements pushed by processors.” It is also important to look to the future, as Mulhern added, “Many are establishing their own policies as companies to require their milk supply to come from farms that don’t use this practice.” A food supplier always needs to meet the requirements of those buy the products.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Animal welfare is a complex issue that is interwoven throughout the food production industry.

Producers and consumers want the same thing: healthy well-cared for animals producing healthy food products. Although it’s a serious topic, with serious implications sometimes we may see more clearly, when we take a lighter viewpoint and accept that we must always move forward because, “When it comes to tail docking, it would appear that there are no shortcuts!”

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