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Numb the pain of castration and dehorning

Monica Gokey for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 January 2019
Producers adopting pain relief during procedures

When Lynn Cooper’s veterinarian told her she should start using pain relief during castration and dehorning, Cooper’s first reaction was to roll her eyes.

“She comes to us every once in a while with some different ideas,” Cooper says of their vet. “Sometimes we think she’s lost her mind. This was one of those times.”

But Cooper and her vet are off-ranch friends, and when her vet persisted on the pain relief issue, Cooper saw no reason not to give it a try.

“The first time we did it was in the spring; we had half a dozen bulls we missed [castrating] in the fall,” Cooper says.

The vet prescribed a pain product called meloxicam, loaded into small boluses and administered with a bolus gun. Meloxicam is a nonsteroid, anti-inflammatory drug (or NSAID in vet-speak). It’s used to treat arthritis pain in humans.

“We cut those bulls, and that evening they were just fighting in the pen,” Cooper recalls. They weren’t behaving like they’d just had their testes cut off.

Cooper’s vet insisted pain relief would pay for itself over time, and so far, Cooper says that judgment has been spot on.

Cooper and her family run about 4,000 head of stockers and a herd of 800 mother cows across California and Oregon. She identifies as a low-cost cattle operator. For them, using pain relief is all about the bottom line. And from what they’ve seen, using pain relief is good business, plain and simple.

“Those pain pills are worth it. We feel like we’ve seen a reduction in the percentage of fresh-cut bulls that we have to doctor,” she says.

Veterinary scientists, too, are glomming on to the notion that providing pain relief during certain procedures is an emerging best practice.

Dr. Hans Coetzee, professor and head of the anatomy and physiology department at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been at the forefront of this idea since it was first gaining traction about 10 years ago.

Coetzee points to two drivers behind the burgeoning movement: The first is consumer perceptions about animal welfare and the second is producers seeing positive results after using pain relief during castration and dehorning. Of all the ranchers Coetzee has worked with to adopt pain relief procedures over the past decade, not a single one has stopped using it.

In a recent study, Coetzee and colleagues took a batch of stockers that had been trucked in from all over – a mix of bulls and steers. Their research goal was to assess the impact of later-stage castration with and without pain relief, specifically looking at average daily gain and disease.

“We didn’t see a significant difference in weight gain,” Coetzee says, “but we did see about half the incidence of bovine respiratory disease in the animals that had been provided pain relief.”

That’s big. Ever since the Veterinary Feed Directive went into effect in 2017, livestock producers have been under increasing scrutiny over judicious antibiotic use. The fact that cattle given meloxicam during castration got sick at half the rate of their peers in the control group is an indicator that using pain relief could be a useful tactic in achieving industry-wide goals of antibiotic stewardship.

“More widely though, the folks that have started using pain relief at the time of castration and dehorning find those animals look better than those that did not receive pain relief,” Coetzee says.

Although it’s natural to judge an animal’s behavior as an indicator of stress or pain (and it’s something stockmen have done for centuries), therein lies an unusual linchpin in this story. Behavior doesn’t cut it for the FDA.

The FDA requires drug companies to use “validated methods of pain assessment” in order to have a drug labeled for pain relief, Coetzee explains. Because there’s no established method of scoring pain in cattle (and many other livestock species, for that matter), “there are no drugs approved by the FDA for analgesia in cattle at time of castration and dehorning,” he says.

“Every time a vet uses pain relief, it’s extra-label drug use,” Coetzee says. The Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) is the loophole here, allowing vets to use medicine in a way not specified if there’s no other approved drug, but it’s shaky ground.

Vets are wary of extra-label drug use because if drug residues are found in meat, the prescribing veterinarian is on the hook. That said, the risk of residues is very low when pain management is used in animals not slated for harvest anytime soon, Coetzee says. In young calves, the risk of drug residue persisting into meat residue is practically zilch.

It’s generally accepted in the livestock community that castrating earlier is easier on cattle. But for pain relief research, young calves are a tough population to follow, Coetzee says.

Cooper says they use pain relief on all calves at branding. She describes a situation that probably sounds familiar to a lot of cattle producers: Branding’s over, you’re checking cows and you see little bull calves curled up in the grass – and you find yourself wondering: “Are they mothered up? Are they OK?”

“We don’t have that anymore,” Cooper says. “They’re up and grazing.”

Cooper says their rates of doctoring calves after branding are down ever since they started using pain relief.

The biggest hassle, she says, is having to fill boluses with meloxicam the night before branding. Cooper says the monetary cost has been negligible, “we’re talking cents, not dollars.”

Coetzee says meloxicam costs about 10 cents per 100 pounds of animal treated – so that’s about 20 cents on a 200-pound calf or 50 cents on a weaned yearling, give or take.

The Coopers don’t belong to any added certification or label programs that require them to use pain relief. (Certified Humane is the most notable program that requires its producers to offer pain relief during certain procedures.)

“To us, it’s just business, and it’s paying for itself in not having sick cattle,” Cooper says.

“The humane thing is just a bonus.”  end mark

PHOTO: More producers are adopting pain relief during castration and other veterinary procedures, but extra-label drug use is one obstacle to widespread adoption. Photo by Monica Gokey.

Monica Gokey is a print and radio journalist in west-central Idaho.

Do bull calves actually wean heavier?

There’s a perception among producers that leaving bull calves intact can make for heavier animals at weaning due to testosterone’s perceived influence on growth.

But the research doesn’t back that up.

Dr. Shelby Roberts’ research shows us that castrated animals wean at the same weights as animals left intact.

“Castrating younger isn’t going to affect the bottom line, but it is better for animal welfare,” says Roberts, who did her doctorate research on the topic at West Texas A&M.

She did, however, see a difference in the stress response of animals given pain relief during castration, especially in yearling-age animals. Their stress response and inflammation was lower compared to animals castrated without pain relief, Roberts says.


In 2-month-old calves given meloxicam during castration, the outward benefits of pain relief were less clear. But interestingly, calves given meloxicam had higher daily weight gain than their counterparts in the control group in the immediate weeks following castration. That gain eventually leveled out, resulting in no significant gain difference over the control group over time.