Should you be tail docking on your dairy farm?

The practice of tail docking is being questioned as a necessary practice on U.S. dairy farms.

Over the last 15 years dairy producers and veterinarians have debated if tail docking is a necessary management practice on dairy farms. Dairy farmers choose to tail dock for many reasons. Dairy farmers who use parallel or rotary parlors often dock tails to keep them out of the way of the milking unit. In parallel and rotary parlors, the tails may swing into and strike the worker as they attach the milking unit. In robotic milking systems, the eye of the laser can mistake the tail for a teat. To avoid causing problems with the laser, robotic milking companies recommend dairy producers trimming tail switches, however many producers dock tails instead. Many dairy producers believe that tail docking improves cow cleanliness and decreases mastitis. In 2008 a survey done at Colorado State University of 113 dairies in the Midwest observed that 82 percent of dairies had docked tails. The most common reason given by producers for tail docking was cow hygiene (73 percent) followed by parlor worker comfort (17 percent).

Research over the years has not supported the idea that tail docking decreases mastitis or somatic cell count. In 2002, researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that cows with docked tails did not have different udder hygiene scores, somatic cell counts or intramammary infections than cows that did not have docked tails. However a study by Texas Tech University and Purdue University in 2001 found that cows with docked tails were cleaner in general but had no difference in udder hygiene. Cows with docked tails also had higher fly counts and fly control behavior exhibited by foot stomping.

In 2014 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) officially opposed routine tail docking in dairy cattle because current scientific literature indicates that routine tail docking provides no benefit to the animal and can cause distress during fly season. The AVMA is not alone in its thoughts. The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) also opposed routine tail docking as of March 2010 and the National Mastitis Council (NMC) knows of no evidence that tail docking of dairy cattle improves cow welfare, cow hygiene or milk quality.

The National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Animal Care Program opposes routine tail docking of dairy animals, unless the animal suffers a traumatic injury that requires tail amputation. Tail docking protocols should be included in the written Herd Health Plan in the FARM program.

Tail docking currently is recommended to be phased out of the Dairy FARM program by December 31, 2016. Switch trimming is a recommended as an alternative to tail docking. Trimming the tail switch will alleviate the matting of hair with manure and bedding. If the hair of the switch is trimmed it cannot strike the worker, increasing worker comfort.

Tail docking is done with banding, cauterizing docking irons, emasculators or surgical removal. Banding is the most common method of tail docking and takes 3-7 weeks for the tail to detach. Any type of tail docking can lead to infection.

Clostridia is a common pathogen that results after tail docking and may cause local or systemic infections. Consult your veterinarian about clostridia vaccinations to help in the case of a clostridia infection. Gangrene and tetanus infections have also been found after tail docking. Tail docking can also lead to the formation of damaged nerve axons called neuromas that can cause chronic pain.

If you choose to tail dock on your dairy farm Michigan State University Extension recommends to do it at the youngest age possible, ideally within the first 3 weeks of life. Also to minimize distress and improve the animal performance, pain control is recommended. To find the right pain control for your farm, please consult your veterinarian. 

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