There has been a noticeable increase in the use of pain relief when disbudding calves. This trend is backed up by research which shows that using pain relief not only reduces pain and recovery time, but also avoids a growth check.
Speedy recovery Research by Massey University (New Zealand) in 2015 and 2016 found calves that received pain relief before disbudding went on to achieve higher growth rates. They gained an average of 0.09 kilograms more per day for the next month, meaning they reached weaning weight about five days earlier than calves that didn't receive pain relief.
Calves that grow faster can be weaned earlier, meaning less milk is fed, less labour is required and they are moved onto grass and meal more quickly. The reduced costs and the benefits of heavier calves easily offset the small cost for pain relief.
Options for pain relief Calves experience pain for four to six hours after disbudding and some lower level pain or discomfort for up to 40 hours.
Calves are good at hiding pain, but there are indicators of when they're in pain, such as high cortisol levels in the blood. Behaviour indicators such as restlessness, feed intake, ear twitching and tail flicking can also be observed.
When local anaesthetic is provided, the signs of pain are reduced until it wears off at about four hours. When calves are given a long-acting anti-inflammatory as well as local anaesthetic, they show fewer indicators of pain for a lot longer.
Disbudding in practice Warrnambool Vet Clinic veterinarian, Glenn Cuzens, said his clinic had been using pain relief for disbudding for the past four seasons after one of the vets at the clinic had seen positive results during a visit to New Zealand.
The popularity among farmers in the south-west has been building each year with the clinic performing disbudding with pain relief for up to 20,000 calves since then.
"It makes the process stress free for animals and for farmers," he said.
"The calves are injected with a sedative and have a lie down then a local anaesthetic nerve block is administered into the base of the horn before the disbudding procedure. Afterwards, they are given an anti-inflammatory."
"What we see afterwards is that calves are much sooner up and about and drinking and they put on more weight in the 14 days post disbudding than they would otherwise."
Calves need to be between three and eight weeks of age to undertake the procedure.
Farmers receive an electronic receipt for their records and for quality assurance purposes.
A positive of the process was that calves receive a general check-up. Vaccinations, National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) tagging, extra teats checks and ear notches can be completed. Any sick calves are excluded from the procedure.
Mr Cuzens said most farms get the procedure done in batches of 30 to 40 at any time depending on farm size.
"We also find that if frees up time for farm staff," he said. "What would usually take two to three people to get the job done with the crush now takes only one so they can focus on other jobs. We have two people there from the clinic to complete the procedure."
Farmer happy with process Allansford farmer Clayton Smith said he was a big advocate of pain relief when disbudding.
"It's definitely great for animal health and wellbeing and I can only see it coming in more and more in the industry," he said. "Post the disbudding they definitely come on better with pain relief and I don't think there are many side effects at all."
Mr Smith's operation milks up to 700 cows and calving occurs from March through to May. Disbudding is usually completed in batches of 40.
Myth: Injections of local anaesthetic are more stressful than disbudding.
Truth: The local anaesthetic injection causes the calf little stress and is much less stressful than being disbudded without pain relief.
Myth: Hot iron cautery destroys the nerves so it doesn't hurt.
Truth: Although the nerves are destroyed where the iron touches the tissue, the nerves around the area are still sensitive and the calf experiences pain from inflammation in the surrounding burnt tissue.
Myth: They drink straight afterward, so it's obviously not painful.
Truth: Willingness to drink milk does not mean calves are pain-free; suckling is soothing for the calf.
Myth: Young calves don't need pain relief.
Truth: There is no evidence that young calves feel less pain than older calves. However, young calves recover more quickly and have fewer complications than older calves. They should be disbudded before they're eight weeks old. Young calves have smaller horn buds and the task can easily be completed.
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