Tail docking makes little sense

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.