Taking pains to prevent pain

Although price and quality remain some of the most influential factors when consumers make purchasing decisions, welfare and ethics are of increasing importance to the general public.

When it comes to dairy, the 2020 Dairy Trust Tracker Survey found that 76 per cent of consumers believe “dairy farmers do a good job caring for animals”.

Now, I find this somewhat concerning: nearly one quarter of our community think we’re not doing a good enough job.

So, how do we better show consumers that we care for and about our animals (because I know we all do), and what is left to be done?

When I look around the farms I regularly service, I see there’s still some areas we could improve upon.

One of those is pain relief.

Pain can be either physical (for example, trauma) or psychological (for example, fear), acute (for example, an injection) or chronic (for example, persistent lameness).

Not all pain is avoidable, even in humans. And not all pain is necessarily bad — especially if it helps a human or animal escape an even more adverse outcome (for example, hotwiring off a dangerous area).

Sometimes, pain is a necessary side-effect of an unavoidable management procedure on farms. This can include things like disbudding (calves less than eight weeks of age), dehorning (cattle older than two months), branding, castration, assisted births and caesarians.

While the industry works towards long-term solutions to mitigate the need for some of these procedures (for example, polled genetics), the reality is that at this stage there are still times in a dairy animal’s life that pain will be inflicted — it is how we choose to care about it that matters.

To use the example of disbudding — industry policy endorsed by the Australian Dairy Farmers National Council has set the target as 2030 for achieving 100 per cent of Australian dairy calves disbudded prior to two months of age and with pain relief (analgesia).

According to the most recent Dairy Australia Animal Husbandry Survey, 72 per cent of Australian dairy farmers are currently disbudding their calves at the correct age, and 76 per cent of those are providing some form of pain relief.

So, despite the known production benefits of providing adequate analgesia — calves disbudded with pain relief can achieve more than 15 per cent better growth rates (kg/day) in the following month — it seems we still have a way to go yet.

Painful health issues also arise from time-to-time on dairy farms, including lameness, mastitis, pneumonia, uterine infections, eye disease or downer cows.

Signs of pain are variable, but can include vocalisation, teeth grinding, swelling or deformities, abnormal ear or head carriage, limping or abnormal posture, reluctance to move, kicking or rolling, poor appetite and loss of condition.

In addition to threatening our social licence, pain is also known to negatively affect productivity — the impacts on milk yields and liveweight gains have been well-researched.

Subsequently, a myriad of available pain relief options now exist to help producers mitigate the pain and stress associated with necessary husbandry procedures, or to help an animal through a period of ill-health.

Broadly, pain relief medications may be classified by:

● Route of administration (topical, oral or injectable).

● Mode of action (localised or systemic effects).

● Onset of action (immediate or slow release).

● Duration of action (short, intermediate or long).

● Permitted use (not all drugs can be used in lactating animals, for example).

When it comes to administering medications, follow your ‘rights’ — choose the right drug for the right patient, administer the right dose via the right route at the right time, and always keep the right documentation.

Consult with your vet to determine the right approach for your farm.

One of the Australian Dairy Industry Sustainability Framework’s key commitments is "striving for health, welfare and best care for all our animals throughout their lives”.

To me, this is a reflection of what most of us already aim to achieve daily — but there’s always capacity for improvement.

Adopting best-practice pain management strategies on your farm has the potential to deliver enhanced productivity and welfare outcomes, and will help reassure our consumers and communities that we do, in fact, care.

Lucy Collins is completing her Dairy Residency with The University of Melbourne. She works as an on-farm veterinarian for Apiam Animal Health, and alongside her partner on his family’s dairy farm in south-west Victoria. She is a 2021 Nuffield Scholar supported by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.