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Common Painful Procedures in Livestock Farming: Identifying Areas for Improvement

As passionate industry members it is our collective responsibility to ensure our farmers are adequately informed and trained. The provision of correct and transparent education, learning platforms and extension activities will move us consistently forward in the right direction, one step at a time.

Livestock farming stands as a crucial pillar of our global food production system, meeting the ever-expanding demand for animal products and increasingly consumer awareness regarding animal management practices and welfare.


Farmers are the backbone of the agricultural sector, working tirelessly to ensure the production of high-quality food while also caring for the animals under their stewardship. It's vital to acknowledge their dedication and commitment to their profession. Many farmers are already taking steps to improve animal welfare on their farms, but they also face challenges in implementing changes, including economic constraints and logistical barriers. Regrettably, numerous painful procedures persist in modern livestock farming practices. While it's imperative to address these issues head-on, it's equally vital to extend support to farmers and foster collaboration across the wider industry to implement improved practices.


Collaboration Across the Industry


Flystrike is a potentially fatal condition that affects sheep and can lead to extreme distress if not treated in time. It occurs when flies lay eggs on the skin of a sheep, resulting in maggots hatching and burrowing into the flesh. Mulesing is a preventative measure taken by farmers to reduce the risk of flystrike in their flocks. This involves removing the skin around a lamb's hindquarters to create a smooth scar which provides less skin folds for flies to lay eggs in. Although this is an uncomfortable process, it can be beneficial to the overall health and welfare of sheep and lambs, ensuring they are safe from flystrike.


To truly make meaningful progress in improving animal welfare in livestock farming, collaboration across the entire industry is essential. This includes farmers, veterinarians, researchers, industry organizations, policymakers, and consumers. Pain mitigation in the wool industry illustrates this well. Whilst the journey is long, the wool industry continues in its commitment to mitigate pain through genetic breeding programs and increased adoption of pain relief. This collaboration within the industry has ensured that over 50% of wool growers have ceased mulesing and for those still on their journey to transition, 90% of these animals now receive pain relief at mulesing, minimising pain and distress for the animal. By working together, areas for improvement can be identified, best practices can be shared, and innovative solutions can be developed to address the root causes of painful procedures.


Identifying Areas for Improvement


But there are several common painful procedures in livestock farming which require attention and improvement. Dehorning and disbudding, castration, tail docking, lameness treatments, branding, and mulesing are just a few examples. While some of these procedures may have practical justifications, it's crucial to prioritize the well-being of the animals involved and explore alternative methods that minimize pain and distress.


Castration is often performed on male animals to control breeding and manage their behavior. Unfortunately, this procedure can be incredibly painful for the animals if not done with proper pain management. Alternatives like immunocastration in piglets, which uses vaccines to achieve the same effect without surgery, are a pain free option. Also, using multimodal pain relief with local anaesthetics for immediate pain of surgery and non-steroidal anti inflammatories for controlling longer term pain and inflammation. This minimizes the discomfort and promotes a faster recovery, ensuring the animals' well-being is not compromised.


Implementing Better Practices


Implementing better practices in livestock farming requires a multi-faceted approach. This includes investing in research to develop alternative methods, providing education and training to farmers and industry professionals, and creating incentives and support systems to facilitate the adoption of more humane practices. It also involves listening to the concerns and feedback of consumers who are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability in animal welfare standards.

Globally, dehorning and disbudding are common practices carried out in cattle to prevent injuries to both animals and farmworkers. Because it involves the removal of the horns the procedure causes pain, stress, and discomfort to the animals. Horns are a genetic trait, like hair colour or growth potential. Breeding hornless or polled animals is the main way to eliminate the need to perform any painful procedure at all.


Depending on the age of the animal the procedure involves either chemical caustic paste, hot iron disbudding, sawing, or lopping with dehorners. The dairy industry normally disbuds all calves when they are less than 6 weeks of age. Because management systems are different, beef cattle are often not dehorned until they are older. The older the animal is the greater the blood and nerve supply and therefore the greater the risk from the procedure for both pain and risk of infection. The key take-home is if the procedure is performed then it is important to perform it as early as possible.


Moving Forward Together


As we strive to improve animal welfare in livestock farming, it's essential to recognize that change will not happen overnight. Yet there are some more "simple" procedures which appear to be deeply misunderstood. Tail docking is practiced in certain livestock industries to prevent tail injuries and enhance cleanliness. Compared to other procedures, it may be considered a less painful procedure. Take the practice of using rings for tail docking, if there’s no blood, it can’t hurt right? Wrong. Tail docking through any means is painful especially if the tails are docked too short. Managing tail injuries through proper husbandry and hygiene practices can reduce the need for docking and improve animal well-being. But if it must be performed, then we should be informed, and equipped with all the resources required to minimise the impact of the procedure upon our animals. As passionate industry members it is our collective responsibility to ensure our farmers are adequately informed and trained. The provision of correct and transparent education, learning platforms and extension activities will move us consistently forward in the right direction, one step at a time.


At Better Choices our mission is to support farmers in their endeavours, but we must also call out the need for collaboration and action across the wider industry. By working together, we can identify areas for improvement, implement better practices, and ensure the well-being of the animals under our care. It’s not about what we stand to gain but more about what we stand to lose. So, let us work together to make Better Choices and ensure the sustainability of the industry we are all passionate about!


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