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Thursday, 19 September 2019 12:55

Knowing how to give calves the needle

Written by  Pam Tipa
NZVA large animal veterinary manager Ash Keown. NZVA large animal veterinary manager Ash Keown.

Most farmers are well prepared for the new disbudding and dehorning regulations which will take effect on October 1.

But they should be aware of key points required for both procedures, says New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) large animal veterinary manager Ash Keown. 

“The anaesthetic needs to be working throughout the procedure. It is not good enough to have anaesthetic just at the beginning or end,” he told Dairy News.

“It has to be appropriately placed and it has to be effective. You need to be able to work out if it is effective, and if it’s not do something about that.”

The local anaesthetic has to be authorised by a vet for that specific procedure. 

“Farmers need to talk with their vets about a specific procedure. If they get a local anaesthetic for disbudding that doesn’t mean they can use that local anaesthetic for other stuff. It is for one specific purpose.”

The owner and persons in charge are all responsible, not just any one person. Anyone who cares for animals has an obligation to make their lives comfortable.

They have to be experienced or have received training in the correct method being used for the job. 

“It does not specify what methods can and can’t be used,” said Keown. “People just have to be proficient and competent to use whatever the selected procedure is. Their vet can talk them through that.”

Generally that will be hot iron cautery as it causes the least pain according to current veterinary knowledge.

Farmers and staff need to be able to recognise the early signs of distress, injury and ill health and how to do something about it. 

“That is pretty important and includes the recovery phase. So it is not just while they are doing it. They need to think about how they will manage those calves afterwards. That will be days and weeks as the little wounds heal up.”

A number of farmers are already using anaesthetic and use their vet’s services. “Certainly in my practice area when I was working up in Waikato most of the farmers just used our services because we could do additional things like sedate them. 

“That was really useful because you can do other procedures such as DNA, ear tagging, extra teat removal and vaccination. There is a whole bunch of stuff you can do while they are sleeping.”

Some farmers have already been trained by vets to use anaesthetic for calf disbudding and once they have done it they usually say they don’t know how they did it without. 

“They say it is so much easier, the calves aren’t struggling and they aren’t bellowing. You can definitely notice calves behave differently when they have local on board, so there is a bunch of farmers already going down this track.”

The regulations allow farmers and staff to administer anaesthetic and do disbudding and dehorning procedures “and the pain relief makes it better for the calves”.

The training required depends on circumstance. Competence is the key point.

“A farm owner who has disbudded calves every year for the last 20 years will need less training than perhaps a new manager who comes onto a farm whose experience may have only ever been that the vet has come to do it. They may have been out doing a farm walk or feeding and never actually watched the disbudding procedure. That person will need a lot more training to become competent.”

So there is no “cookie cutter” training standard. Some will have competence already and others will take longer to bring up to speed. However under these regulations there is no specific qualification required.

“Before the vet can authorise the local anaesthetic they have to assess whether that person is competent or not. If they aren’t competent, we can’t authorise the drugs.”

It is best to talk early to the vet if interested in training.

“There needs to be enough time for the vet to come out and train all the staff. That may vary.

“Sometimes it’s not the right thing for a specific farm to carry out the procedure themselves. You need enough time and you have to do it properly so if you have staffing particularly tight in one season or you are too busy, that might not be the right decision.” 

Contractors and vets can provide these services. Another consideration in engaging a vet is that sedation is also available for other procedures such as extra teats, tagging, vaccination and DNA.

A good level of detail on aftercare is essential. 

“It is an extremely painful procedure for calves and they show a lot of pain afterwards once the local wears off. Local is only effective for 40-60 minutes. So consider how to manage that pain longer term.”

Some good products are now available for that. 

“Good management after the procedure keeps calves happy, bouncy and gaining weight. If you can control their pain better they will keep eating and thriving.”

The age of animals is important

The age of the calves is important in disbudding, says Keown. 

“If you do them too early you can have trouble finding the little horn bud. They can be quite small. But over eight weeks of age the horn starts attaching to the skull and that makes a more significant procedure to get all the horn tissue off.”

NZVA recommends two-six weeks of age as the correct time. 

“It may be better to do them in a couple of batches rather than leave those early calves to have big horns.”

Storage of products is important as for all drugs on farm. A secure storage cupboard is required.

All on farm treatments should be recorded. 

“Just like if you were treating a cow with mastitis you would write that in your dairy diary. That is still a drug that is going into them so we should still keep a drugs record.”

Biosecurity is important. If a farmer is disbudding their own calves it is unlikely they will leave the farm in the middle of the job. 

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