Most livestock producers agree castration, branding, dehorning and difficult calving cause animals pain, but most producers do not use pain treatments to take the edge off.
Recent survey results show about a third of producers use pain control for dehorning. However, many say they dehorn when the calves are very young or use a polled bull to eliminate removing horns, said Tracy Herbert of the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Thirteen percent said they use pain medication for castration and the majority said they do it before three months of age, she told the University of Calgary veterinary summit held in Calgary June 19-21.
At Tamara Carter’s family ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan, pain medication at their commercial Angus operation has been a normal practice for five years. In 2013, their veterinarian told them Metacam could be used for castration and branding.
They started using it on all steer calves and noted improved animal welfare, as well as better weight gains.
“There has been no downside. The results were so quick and impressive to see those baby calves right back up, nursing and bonding with mom or not flicking tails and not exhibiting any discomfort,” she said at the Calgary conference.
She has compared weaning weights on calves from the pre-pain-control days to current results and found calves have added an extra 100 pounds each since 2011.
“We have spent about $2,100 on Metacam in the last five years and I would estimate the increasing gains added $120,000 to $150,000. Where else would you get that rate of return,” she said.
While the beef code of practice dictates calves older than six months should receive medication for painful procedures, the greater challenge was finding approved products.
Recently a pour-on banamine from Merck Animal Health has received approval in Canada, Europe and the United States.
In Canada, the local anesthetic lidocaine is available and meloxicam is approved for pain.
Canadian researchers have just completed a five-year project testing products for castration and spaying pain. There are few validated diagnostic techniques and pain-scoring systems for beef cattle, said Agriculture Canada researcher Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
Additionally, any products on the market have to be easy to use.
“In order for something to be adopted by the industry, it has to be practical or it is not going to happen,” she said.
In the course of their research, obvious signs of pain, such as facial expressions, head drooping, arched back or tail-flicking were used to assess pain. Often, these observations were criticized as too subjective so they also measured cortisol in saliva and hair, monitored temperatures and measured feeding behaviour.
The study concentrated on the effects of band and knife castration at different ages of cattle and compared pain reactions without pain relief and with approved drugs like meloxicam.
They noted as calves get older, cortisol levels increase when they are castrated surgically with a knife.
One- and two-week-old calves castrated with a knife had scrotal swelling for seven days compared to four-month-old calves, which experienced swelling for 14 days.
One-week and two-month calves castrated with an elastic band had scrotal swelling for 21 and 28 days, respectively, while the four-month-old calves had swelling for 35 days.
The older they are, the longer it takes to heal and the more painful it appears to be.
“Based on this study, I am going to recommend band castration at two months of age and less,” said Schwartkopf-Genswein.
“Band- and knife-castrated calves show indicators of acute pain regardless of their age,” she said.
Meloxicam reduced physiological and behavioural indicators of pain among week-old calves.
Pain and stress response is additive for multiple procedures like castration and branding.
“Meloxicam was equally effective at reducing pain caused by a combination of activities like castration and branding versus castration alone,” she said.
There was no added benefit of giving meloxicam three or six hours before castration. Giving it at the time of the procedure works is probably preferable.
They also tried a combination of meloxicam and lidocaine during surgical castration. Lidocaine was injected into the neck of the scrotum 30 minutes before castration.
They expected that the combination of those drugs would be better but they did not see that during the experiments.
“There were no combined effects of the meloxicam and lidocaine. However, if you look to see when the effects occurred, we think it provides longer-lasting pain relief because they act at different time points,” she said.
They are starting to assess pain relief when spaying heifers with collaborators from the University of Saskatchewan, Thompson Rivers University, University of Calgary and Agriculture Canada.
Spaying can be done through the flank or vaginally. It requires skill to perform and could cause trauma, hemorrhaging or death. It has been assumed spaying was not painful, but early results show it is.
A combination of butophanol, ketamine and xylazine followed up with Metacam was tried with promising results.
Pain control had many benefits but weight or average daily gain was never improved.
“In the 10 years we have been doing this kind of work, I have never seen a weight response for any of the drugs we used. Compensatory gain happens,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.