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Pain control in cattle remains a complex issue

The age of the animal is often a factor when considering pain mitigating options

When it comes to pain mitigation practices for her cattle operation, Cecilie Fleming believes it’s the right thing to do. It’s also proven to be practical and cost-effective, factors that many beef producers consider when deciding whether to implement pain control.

Fleming, who raises purebred Angus, Simmental and Charolais cattle with her family at Fleming Stock Farm near Granum, Alta., is an enthusiastic promoter of using analgesics during painful procedures such as castration. As a seedstock producer, deciding whether to castrate a bull calf often occurs early in the animal’s life. “The ones that we leave intact to see what the genetic potential is, then we either use the Metacam ourselves and castrate, or if we’re selling them, we sell them direct to a feedlot we know has best practice,” she said.

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“I have compassion for the cattle — our whole operation does — and we’re just not going to take them to the auction mart and get dinged and hope that somebody buys them and has the best practice.”

Fleming was part of a producer panel on pain mitigation during the recent International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare in Calgary. Commercial producers Tamara Carter and Stephen Hughes joined her to share their experiences with the practical applications of pain control.

For Carter, deciding to use pain mitigation at branding time was a question of personal conscience. She and her husband, who run about 125 head of commercial Black Angus on their Lacadena, Sask. ranch, implemented changes to avoid pain, such as selecting for calving ease. Wanting to do more, she began asking questions about pain control drugs.

“We weren’t aware that there was anything until 2013, when we discussed it with our vet and we were told that Metacam would be suitable to use off label for calving issues,” she said. They also started using it at branding time and were impressed with the results. With fewer calves developing scrotal infections due to lying down in discomfort, Carter saw that doing the right thing also had tangible benefits.

Hughes, who runs Chinook Ranch, a 500-head operation at Longview, Alta., was an early adopter of pain control. He became involved with a trial using Metacam, and quickly realized that the calves given the drug showed fewer indications of pain than those that weren’t. “It’s really clear to me how important that is and how effective it is,” he said. Hughes also uses the drug for issues such as difficult calvings, calf scours and the occasional dehorning.

While more Canadian beef producers are becoming mindful of pain mitigation and adopting these practices, this issue continues to generate debate. An interest in producers’ perceptions of pain control led Claire Windeyer of the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine to explore views on this topic. By conducting a 2014 survey in partnership with the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network, Windeyer found that producers generally recognize that certain procedures are painful.

Claire Windeyer.
photo: Supplied

“There was definitely an emphasis on acute pain, on visual evidence of pain and the impacts on growth,” said Windeyer. Many of these producers reported that they try to avoid painful practices by selecting bulls for calving ease and using polled genetics. They also indicated that some practices are unavoidable, such as branding if using community pastures or grazing leases.

The age of the animal is often a factor when considering pain mitigation options. Some producers said that they don’t use pain control because they perform these procedures at a young age. Others said that they use it because their animals are older when these procedures take place. As well, producers with larger herds and those that calved earlier were more likely to use pain control.

Many producers surveyed cited personal conscience as both a motivator and barrier to implementing pain control practices. “A number of people who were using pain control said it feels like the right thing to do,” said Windeyer, adding that many saw a noticeable benefit. Others reported that they didn’t want to create more stress on their animals with increased handling.

Research finds calves feel pain at all ages

There is room for advancement in pain mitigation methods, especially in terms of practicality. With the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Beef Cattle Code of Practice now requiring that pain mitigation is used during castration of calves six months of age and older, meeting this challenge is more pressing.

Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
photo: Supplied

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, senior scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, stated that practical solutions will likely result in greater uptake of pain control methods. “I don’t know many producers that really are crazy about running animals through the chute twice,” she said in a presentation at the symposium. “In order for something to be adopted by the industry it really has to be practical.”

Schwartzkopf-Genswein recently completed a five-year study on castration pain, primarily examining how age and castration method affect a calf’s level of pain. By measuring pain in calves one week, two months and four months of age that were castrated either by banding or knife, her team found that the older an animal is, the greater their response to pain. However, the youngest calves also showed behavioural and physiological signs of pain. “The idea (that) one-week-of-age calves don’t feel pain and don’t have indicators of pain is incorrect. We see it in every age,” she said.

Her team also found that giving subcutaneous meloxicam when castrating one-week-old calves decreased indications of pain. “Consistently we saw band and knife-castrated calves experience pain and we see that in the indicators that we measured, and then meloxicam was able to reduce both the physiological and behavioural indicators of pain.”

They also studied the timing of administering the drug. While Windeyer’s survey found that some producers considered timing a barrier, recent research has since proven that it isn’t necessary to handle animals twice in order to use an analgesic at castration. When Schwartzkopf-Genswein and her team examined what timing was most effective in reducing pain, they found that “there is no added benefit in administering meloxicam three and six hours before castration, and just giving it at the time when they go through is the way to go,” she said.

Lack of information considered a barrier

With new products and more information available, there are still many who have yet to embrace these pain control measures. For some, it comes down to not having enough information. Windeyer’s study found that while some producers were motivated by their veterinarian to use pain control, others stated that a lack of information was a major barrier, suggesting that a greater effort on sharing information with clients may be necessary.

Producers who currently use pain control can also share this information. “We attend a lot of brandings at those ranches back there, and some of the practices make my hair curl, and others I’m so impressed,” said Fleming. She believes that visiting with producers who aren’t on board yet is a good opportunity to suggest some of the options available.

“You’re a guest at their branding, but at some point you have that conversation: ‘Would you consider talking to your vet?’” she said. “It’s amazing how many producers are hearing this for the first time. So you just have to look for your opportunity. I think it really is a ground game, talking to your neighbours and colleagues about it.”

Sharing personal experiences is also helpful. For example, using the same sires and pasture conditions as they did prior to using Metacam at branding, Carter saw significant gains at weaning in both bull and heifer calves. “We’ve spent about $2,100 on Metacam in the last five years, and I would estimate we’ve had increases in gains between $100,000 and $150,000,” she said. “Obviously I can’t attribute all the gains to that, but it’s interesting that we started using this with the same bull battery.”

photo: Supplied

For Hughes, this topic comes up frequently at his local 4-H club. “We talk about sustainability a lot in our club, and I love that it just becomes part of the vernacular with the kids in our club and they just consider that normal,” he said, adding that it may be the parents who have a harder time buying into these practices.

Fleming agreed that youth need to be exposed to this information. “I think that’s a huge demographic that is impressionable. I think it’s important that we talk to our 4-H kids and educate them properly and get the professionals in to motivate them.”

Raising the bar

With the Canadian beef industry becoming more focused on promoting sustainable practices, pain control will continue to be a topic of interest. Overall, Windeyer’s study found that most of the producers surveyed in 2014 were operating within the Codes of Practice as related to pain mitigation.

“Most of our producers weren’t using pain mitigation, but they were still in line with the codes because they’re doing things early,” she said, adding that the number of producers using pain control has likely increased since then. “They’re motivated by ethics and by perceived benefits, but some of the barriers were the logistics and economics, and I think we can probably still tackle some of those to help remove the barriers for our producers.”

In terms of practicality, Carter believes that simpler methods of pain control, such as topical applications, will likely appeal to producers who are currently hesitant. “For the people who do 400 or 600 calves in one day at a branding, it would quite certainly simplify things,” she said.

Still, some argue there’s more that can be done. For those who want to raise the bar in terms of sustainable production practices, including pain mitigation, Hughes recommends becoming involved with Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+). He noted that this can be an important step given current consumer demands. “We cannot get the general consumer against us for some of our practices. We have to be upfront, telling them we’re doing the best we can,” he said. “That, to me, is the big picture, and it’s really critical.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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