SALEM, Ohio – Heads or tails?
Dairy farmers use more than just a simple flip of the coin to decide whether to dock their herd’s tails. But just because a recent study questioned its merits, doesn’t mean farmers are listening.
A recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that tail docking has no significant effect on milk quality, somatic cell count or udder and leg cleanliness.
Stark County dairyman Mike Yoder is skeptical. He’s been docking tails for six years and, although he hasn’t noticed an effect on somatic cell count or infection, he says there’s a definite difference in cow cleanliness.
The cows’ udders and legs are much cleaner since he’s started docking, plus it saves time cleaning them in the parlor, Yoder said.
This cleanliness factor was the main reason he started docking tails in his 165-head herd, and so far, it’s worked: His rolling herd average is 22,465 pounds and he’s one of the top herds in his county.
Rightful reason. Docking tails to keep the cows cleaner is legitimate reasoning, according to David Wolfgang, vet scientist with Penn State.
“Dirty cows are more likely to have mastitis because they are harder to clean in the parlor,” he said.
“If the cattle can be managed and are clean with their tail, then I would recommend they not be docked,” Wolfgang said. “Conversely, in most dairies, cows are cleaner with docked tails and, in nearly all cases, cleaner is better.”
Wet alleys. The problem is that many cows in freestall barns are lying with their tails sitting out in a wet alley. The manure and dirt in the alley transfers from the tail to the rear legs and udder.
This is where problems can start, because manure and dirty udders are related to environmental mastitis, Wolfgang said.
Because of this, Wolfgang said many farmers with freestall barns are docking tails.
In addition, with the tails gone, farmers aren’t getting backhanded by manure-covered tail switches while they’re milking.
Study background. Researchers Daniel Schreiner and Pamela Ruegg took 1,250 lactating dairy cows from eight Wisconsin farms and broke them into two groups – docked and undocked.
Milk samples, somatic cell counts and hygiene scores were collected for eight to nine months.
According to Journal of Dairy Science, researchers found no significant difference between the two groups in somatic cell count, milk quality, or udder or leg hygiene that could be attributed to tail docking.
How it works. Young calves’ tails are usually docked by placing a rubber ring around the top of the tail. Typically 4-5 inches of the tail remains.
According to Wolfgang’s research of several studies, “if docked properly, cattle show minimal or no effect in behavior and stress factors.
“They do switch their tails more post-docking but milk yield and stress hormone levels are not different than undocked animals.
“[There's] some evidence to indicate that docking tails in calves is the least stressful and has the least side effects.”