Cattle and unsuitable husbandry practices

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MORBIDITY (sickness) and mortality (death) on farms are the most important and fundamental cattle welfare issues for the livestock producer.
In Zimbabwe, cases of preventable high levels of illness and any subsequent livestock deaths relate to the poor functioning of animals, particularly if the illness is chronic and the animal has suffered unnecessarily for an extended period.
This is endemic where there is a prolonged period, or a lifetime of tethering, that usually results in permanent skeletal deformities or an acute and painful illness.
Animal welfare is generally considered to be in good stead if the animals are safe, healthy, comfortable, well-nourished and not suffering from disagreeable conditions such as pain, fear and distress.
Respiration rate, drooling and sweating are all signs of compromised functioning.
General abnormal cattle behaviours include reduced feed intake, agitated and restless behaviour as well as standing for long periods rather than lying down.
Weather and climate are the driving factors behind heat stress especially in the low-lying tropics and sub-tropics of Zimbabwe. However, with the correct management and facility design, heat stress can be dealt with effectively, reducing the physiological stress on the animal.
Tethering is a common practice that can cause significant welfare issues as it is closely associated with high levels of disease, discomfort and abnormal behaviours, especially in tethered dairy cows.
Animals that are continuously tethered are more likely to be dirty than animals that are kept in tie-free spaces.
This is important as dirty cows have a much greater risk of mastitis and lameness.
They are more likely to pass diseases on to calves as well as zoonotic diseases to humans through their milk.
Cows kept in tie-stalls are also more likely to display both, restless and abnormal behaviours more frequently than cows that are not.
Permanent tethering restricts the animal’s ability to rest comfortably.
Unfortunately, this is typical management of too many cows usually kept on smallholder farms.
The welfare of tethered cows can be greatly improved by maintaining a clean environment, ensuring that the flooring is comfortable, providing water ad libitum and giving them access to pasture and/or the ability to walk around freely for a few hours each day.
Making these simple and easy changes can significantly improve the milk yields, health and welfare of most animals.
Some management practices cause considerable pain to the animals.
These practices should be avoided where possible and where necessary, they should be performed by a well-trained technician or veterinarian.
It is important to consider ways to limit the pain an animal may experience during these processes.
Pain can be significantly alleviated by the provision of pain relief.
However, when pain relief cannot be administered, some methods are considered to be less painful than others.
Tail docking (kugura muswe wemombe dzemukaka), a common practise performed on dairy farms, is an example of a practice that causes significant, unnecessary pain to the animal, without any evidence of its practical or management benefit.
In the short-term, the procedure of tail docking causes significant pain to the animal, as well as leaving an open wound. In the long-term, this can lead to chronic pain, the same way a person with an amputation experiences pain, known as phantom limb pain.
Tail docking is practiced because it is thought to improve hygiene of the udder, but there is no research to support this and the practice should not be performed.
Dehorning and disbudding are common painful husbandry practices performed on dairy farms.
Horns on a cow can pose a threat to the farmer and other cows that the horned animal interacts with, therefore, dehorning is a necessary management practice.
The age at which horn removal is conducted and the method used have an effect on the amount of pain and distress the animal experiences.
There are several methods by which horns can be removed. Disbudding is carried out on young calves, before the horn has actually started to grow.
Dehorning is the removal of the horn and horn-producing tissue.
Cautery disbudding uses a hot iron to remove and burn the horn bud.
This technique is suitable for calves 12 weeks or younger and causes the least pain to the animal as well as the smallest wound area.
This is the recommended method and timing of horn removal. Cautery disbudding is considered one of the best methods for disbudding.
Caustic disbudding uses a paste to remove the horn bud.
Along with being painful, this type of disbudding can cause irritation to the surrounding areas of the skin, can damage the eye if the paste runs down the calf’s face and can also cause irritation to other animals that the calf comes in contact with.
As a result, calves should be housed by themselves in the hours after the paste has been applied and the dehorned area must be kept dry.
Pain management for caustic disbudding is difficult to manage and so is not recommended.
Amputation dehorning, conducted on animals at a later age, creates a wound that can open the frontal sinus of the animal. This procedure causes extensive pain, long wound healing times and significantly reduced weight gains.
It also creates a large risk of infection. Pain relief using both a local anaesthetic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory are highly recommended in this particular situation.
All animals treated with these alleviation methods have shown indicators of a reduced pain response.
The wound site will also bleed significantly and clamps or tourniquets should be used to reduce bleeding.
Castration is less common in dairying than it is in beef production, as bull calves are usually sold or slaughtered before they reach sexual maturity.
In smallholder communal farming systems, it is more common to keep bull calves until they reach heavier slaughter weights and so castration can be a usual procedure.
There are several methods of castration and the age of the calf has a significant influence on which method is most effective and least painful.
Calves at a younger age display less pain during castration than older animals.
For calves younger than three months, rubber ring castration has a high success rate and has the best welfare outcome for the animal.
Since it does not involve a surgical procedure, there is no blood loss or evidence of acute pain compared to calves castrated with a knife.
Calves that are three months or younger are usually much easier to handle than older animals.
This makes the castration procedure safer for both the handlers and the animal.
Rubber ring castration is not effective on older cattle; the best option for these animals is surgical castration.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
For views and comments, email: tony.MONDA@gmail.com

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