Tail Docking: A Welfare Issue?

With the recent publicity in the US regarding the tail docking of dairy cows, Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite junior editor speaks with industry representatives to find more about the practice.
calendar icon 1 March 2010
clock icon 4 minute read

Tail docking is a common practice in the US and is practiced in a number of other countries including New Zealand. However it has come under recent criticism from the public who conceive it as cruel and poor animal welfare.

Why is tail docking done?

Those who practice tail docking believe it helps with the hygiene of both cows and people working with cows. The removal of the lower portion of the tail reduces the potential to spread manure, and possibly pathogens, across the udder, says Chris Galen, National Milk Producers Federation in the US.

In New Zealand, the practice is managed by the Painful Husbandry Procedures Code of Welfare 2005 which says that tails can be removed to improve the comfort for milking personnel and enhance milking efficiency.

Tom Rabbetts, technical and policy advisor for the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers believes the practice could be painful to the animal but more importantly can affect fly control. The natural movement of the tail prevents flies from settling on the animals reducing stress and disease.

Dr Gatz Riddell, Executive Vice President of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners says that removal of tails may also reduce one of the cows means of communication.

Is it necessary?

Mr Galen says that studies have not demonstrated an improvement in milk quality in cows that have been docked. Obviously, some farmers believe it improves cow cleanliness, and helps with the hygiene and safety of their workers.

Dr Riddell says that there does not appear to be any supporting scientific research that demonstrates there is a benefit to the animal.

Lachlan McKenzie, Federated Farmers Dairy Chairperson says that Federated Farmers do not consider the practice necessary unless there is a genuine animal welfare consideration at stake.

How is it done?

Mr Galen says that the most common practice in the US is an elastrator band which is placed on the tail to constrict the blood flow and causes the end of the tail to atrophy and fall off.

In New Zealand the Painful Husbandry Procedures Code of Welfare 2005 requires a Veterinary surgeon to either conduct or oversee the procedure. The Painful Husbandry Procedures Code of Welfare 2005 also states that only the last two vertebra can be taken. To view the code click here.

Is there any legislation regarding it?

As mentioned above in New Zealand, the Painful Husbandry Procedures Code of Welfare 2005 monitors the practice. There are no age requirements in the Code.

In the US, there is no federal legislation regarding it. Mr Galen says it is typically done in the calf's first few months of life. California has recently passed a law prohibiting the practice starting in 2011.

The practice is also banned in the UK (since 1982) and a number of other European countries. It is allowed in some Australian territories but illegal in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

How common is it?

A USDA study done in 2002 found that about 50 per cent of US farmers dock none of their cows' tails.

Of the remainder 16 per cent dock all and the remaining third dock some, but not all.

On a volume basis the same study found that one-third of US dairy cows had docked tails. The practice appeared most common on medium-sized dairy farms.

It is not a common practice in New Zealand these days. That said, closely docked cows can still be seen in New Zealand, says Mr McKenzie.

Mr McKenzie said the procedure is not practiced on his farm nor any other farms he knows of.


Federated Farmers of New Zealand only support tail docking if there is a genuine animal welfare consideration at stake.

Whilst the public's opinion on tail docking has not gauged, Mr Mckenzie feels that seeing the Federation, aside from pure animal welfare considerations, finds it an arcane practice, he is certain the public would not warm to it.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners is not aware of sufficient scientific evidence in the literature to support tail docking in cattle. However, if tail docking is deemed as necessary for proper care and management of production animals in certain conditions, veterinarians should counsel clients on proper procedures, benefits, and risks.

Dr Riddell says that by and large, the average urban dwelling citizen that has been presented with worst case scenarios and inflammatory descriptions by animal rights organisations is opposed. For those that take the time to understand the potential value in reduced eye injuries and health problems to dairy farm workers in addition to the cleanliness issue can understand the use of humanely performed tail docking.

Mr Galen says that the National Milk Producers Federation does not have a policy on it, however the National Dairy FARM Programme does not recommend tail docking.

March 2010
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