Tail docking makes little sense

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A growing body of evidence suggests that tail docking does little, if anything, to improve the cleanliness of cows.

Without that justification, tail docking makes little sense. If clean is what you want, you can get a lot more bang for your buck by keeping the cows' environment clean rather than docking their tails.

If you are now docking tails, consider stopping the practice. That way, you will save time and money, the cows will have their natural fly-swatting appartus intact, and you will duck any lingering questions over animal welfare. A suitable compromise is to trim the switches rather than dock the tails.

During the mid-1990s, tail docking experienced an upsurge in popularity. Several prominent consultants went out and proclaimed that the cows seem to stay cleaner when their tails are docked. But their comments were based on personal on-farm observation rather than controlled research.

Research indicates otherwise
A recent study by the University of Wisconsin found that tail docking provides no advantage from a cleanliness standpoint. The study was conducted at eight commercial dairy operations with free-stalls. The study looked at 1,250 cows - half of them docked, and the other half not.

The Wisconsin research, reported in this month's issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, found no significant differences, either, in terms of udder health. No significant differences in somatic cell count or rate of intramammary infection were found between docked cows and those that weren't docked.

Perhaps the only remaining justification for tail docking is one involving worker convenience. Certainly, when tails are docked, it's more convenient for milkers in parallel or rotary parlors to attach milking units from behind the cow through the hind legs. But, this problem can be mitigated by trimming the switches on the tails.

Other studies agree
The Wisconsin findings are supported by other research studies.

"Until evidence emerges that tail docking has benefits to animal well-being, health or public health, the routine practice of tail docking should be discouraged," a group of University of California-Davis researchers reported in the May 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

In other research findings:

  • Researchers from the University of British Columbia found no significant difference in udder cleanliness between cows in free-stalls that were docked and those that weren't. They couldn't find any differences, either, in terms of mastitis rates or somatic cell counts. The researchers concluded, "Given these disadvantages and the lack of cleanliness and udder health benefits associated with (tail) docking, we see little merit to adopting this procedure." Their research appeared in the January 2001 edition of the Journal of Dairy Science.
  • Another Canadian research team found that tail docking using a rubber ring may cause some discomfort to calves docked within the first few weeks of birth. Reporting in the March 2002 Canadian Journal of Animal Science, the researchers went on to suggest that tail docking is carried out for the benefit of the producer, not the cow.
  • Researchers from Purdue University found that tail docking caused cows to adopt alternative fly-avoidance behaviors, such as foot stomping. They suggested that people pay particular attention to fly control if they dock their cows' tails, as reported in the August 2001 Journal of Dairy Science.

Make a change
The cumulative body of research on tail docking speaks loudly. The early reported benefits do not exist, and tail docking is now more of a producer preference than a cow cleanliness/udder health issue. In light of this new research, and the public's heightened concerns regarding animal welfare, the dairy industry should eliminate the routine practice of docking tails.

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central PA  |  March, 18, 2013 at 08:18 AM

I guess pet owners soon won't be able to have their dog's ears docked, trimmed or whatever the term is used on certain breeds. The big ears will have to do,not the short perky version. And I hope the maggot infestations under lamb's tails are not going to happen anymore when those tails are left on.

New York  |  March, 18, 2013 at 08:50 AM

Not sure what planet that the research is done on, but it certainly isn't on my farm. My cows are alot cleaner without tails on. Also didn't miss that wet switch in my face at 5:00 Am. Just another example of idiots who have never worked on a farm telling the rest of us how to do it.

new york  |  March, 18, 2013 at 11:41 AM

I stopped tail docking and saw no changes at all, cows are as clean with or with out tails, I have cut switches off. Main thing is your cows are as clean as your alleys are, tails have nothing to do with clean cows. That said any government has no reason telling us what we can and can not do with our cows.

CNY  |  March, 18, 2013 at 05:43 PM

We have alley scrapers that run pretty much constantly. Some cows still have tails. Some of these are perfectly clean, some let their tails drag and constantly plaster themselves, their mates and milkers with manure. Those cows constantly attract flies. If your fly control program is a tail you are living in the past. What about face flies, the worst pest of the lot? Trim switches? Yeah. Nothing like getting thumped in the ear with the club that is left. If tails are docked using an elastrator band at 3-5 weeks I am not seeing any stress, of course what do I know, a mere farmer? To paraphrase gun enthusiasts, they will have to pry my banding tool from my cold, dead hands.

Wisconsin  |  March, 27, 2013 at 01:44 PM

The research done in Wisconsin is a perfect example of "armchair research" I say work with the cows for a month then tell me what you think. Especially in the midwest with the moisture we have.


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