Long-term Alliance investments support dairy calf welfare

Posted on Thursday, June 8th, 2023

Dr. Todd Duffield, chair of the Department of Population Medicine at U of G, has spent 20 years researching how to manage pain in young dairy calves, thanks in part to long-term funding from the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance (Alliance), a collaboration between the Ontario government and the University of Guelph. Much of his work has focused on the practice of disbudding, or the removal of horn buds on young calves. It’s a practice recommended by the Canadian Dairy Code of Practice to protect the safety of the cow, pen mates and farm staff.

Profile photo of Dr. Todd Duffield.

Dr. Todd Duffield.

Duffield began researching new pain management options for disbudding and dehorning young dairy calves when he produced convincing video evidence of the power of a nerve block (lidocaine) before the procedure. The video―which has been shared around the world― demonstrates the drastically improved comfort provided by pain management. And it kickstarted two decades of research, supported in large part through the Alliance and industry collaboration.

Research drives protocol changes

Duffield’s research focused on the use of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for post-disbudding pain relief. “The longer-acting NSAIDs proved to provide more pain relief for a longer time,” he says. “That’s why our research on meloxicam was really pivotal.” Meloxicam is the active ingredient in Metacam® from Boehringer Ingelheim, industry partner on the pain-management project.

Over time, Duffield and his team developed a best practice recommendation for disbudding in young dairy calves that used both a nerve block and an NSAID. The combined approach numbs pain during the procedure and reduces post-disbudding inflammation pain.

The research ultimately drove a policy change by the Dairy Farmers of Canada―as part of its proAction Animal Care module―requiring Canadian dairy farmers to use a local anesthetic and NSAID for all methods of disbudding to improve calf welfare. 

Duffield was recognized for his pivotal research in pain management for dairy calves with the 2018 Metacam® 20 Bovine Welfare Award. 

Educating with new outreach tools

World-class research like Duffield’s is the first step to implementing evidence-based, on-farm best practices. The next step involves leveraging Alliance investments with additional industry partner funding to bring the recommendations directly to the Ontario dairy sector.

Along with colleague Dr. Charlotte Winder, Duffield developed an online training module for producers and veterinary students on administering a nerve block during disbudding. The knowledge transfer materials were developed with Alliance funding and support from Saputo and Dairy Farmers of Ontario. 

Profile photo of Dr. Charlotte Winder.

Dr. Charlotte Winder.

Pain management training was also provided in person at the Ontario Dairy Research Centre in Elora. The centre is a state-of-the-art research and outreach facility owned by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario and managed by U of G through the Alliance.

“Producers watched an online module, then they came in and had to do it on a calf―it was very effective,” said Winder, a professor in the Department of Population Medicine. 

As of 2019, about 150 veterinary students and 43 dairy producers in Ontario have completed the training module (online or in person) for disbudding pain management. “This new procedure is quiet. It’s easy and less stress for everyone – farmers and the animals,” says Kendra Keels, a dairy producer and director with Veal Farmers of Ontario. “That’s why it has been adopted so much faster than we initially thought it would.”

Strengthening consumer confidence

Consumers are increasingly interested in food products ethically sourced from animals that are treated humanely, and Ontario has carved out a leadership position for sustainable dairy production that provides consumers with healthy food options.

“Pain control is key for welfare and extremely important in a sustainable industry,” says Winder. “This work is important for the industry’s social licence. We want to ensure we are employing best practices to control pain.”

Winder received Alliance funding to continue knowledge translation and transfer activities with enhanced online modules, in-person workshops and data collection to broaden training opportunities. She hopes to identify barriers to administering pain control and determine the best way to deliver future workshops.

Winder and her team interviewed Ontario dairy producers to better understand barriers and motivators involved in using pain control. In the study results, published in the journal Animals, the producer’s relationship with their veterinarian emerged as a key influencing factor.

This Alliance-funded research has made significant contributions to global knowledge of pain responses and management in calves. The Alliance funding successfully leveraged additional industry sector investments thanks to researcher networks and the reputation and expertise of the University of Guelph. These long-term collaborations speak to the importance of research and innovation to advance shared goals for a sustainable and well-managed sector. 

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