New beef code to target pain management

Code to recommend what, when and how to perform procedures with as little pain as possible

Pain management for common practices such as branding, dehorning and castration will be a major recommendation in Canada’s new beef cattle code of practice.

The code should be released later this summer and focuses on the humane treatment of animals. It is not mandatory but makes recommendations on handling pain, including consulting with veterinarians on the use of anesthetic and analgesics.

“Animals do show us pain. You just have to be good enough to see it,” said Joe Stookey, an animal behaviourist at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine.

Pain is a survival mechanism to avoid further damage, and cattle have neurons that perceive pain much the way people do, he said at the university’s beef cattle conference held in Calgary June 20-21.

Tails that swish and ears that twitch indicate pain or discomfort. Measurements of heart rate, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and vocalization prove they are in pain.

The new code recommends that these procedures need to be done within the first couple months of the animal’s life.

It is recommending that dehorning be done early because the horn bud is not attached yet and removal is not as traumatic. The horn eventually becomes attached to the skull and removing it is more like an amputation.

“If you dehorn cattle after three months of age, after horn bud attachment, you have to consult with a veterinarian and you have to mitigate pain,” Stookey said.

“You have a couple years to think about that and develop protocols on how to do that.”

A local anesthetic such as lidocaine can be injected and lasts two to four hours, said Nathan Erickson, a partner at Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie, Alta.

Local anesthetic produces an immediate response, but there is a spike in cortisol once it wears off, indicating that pain persists.

Longer-term control for up to eight hours is found with non steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Tylenol or Aspirin.

However, the best cure for horns is using a polled bull.

Producers surveyed in the United States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found 64 percent of operations have 100 percent polled animals. When many switched to an Angus base, it included the benefit of no horns because the breed is naturally polled.

The survey also found that nearly half of the producers who dehorn their animals do it before the animals are younger than three months and often use a caustic paste.

Castration is also painful and needs to be done at an early age. It should not be done at weaning because it increases stress.

A vet must be consulted on handling pain if bulls are castrated after nine months of age.

“If the animals are over nine months, make sure you consult your vet because procedures have changed,” said Erickson.

However, the USDA survey found that most producers are doing it before 60 days of age. Most use a blade before three months of age or rubber rings on extremely young calves.

Branding is still allowed within the new code of practice, but it should be done to destroy hair follicles rather than burning the hide. Hot iron branding has been shown to be more painful than freeze branding, Stookey said.

To read the draft code of practice, visit

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