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Welfare in Livestock Husbandry

The Issues

Husbandry procedures used on cattle and sheep properties in Australia include castration, horn removal (dehorning), branding, mulesing, tail docking and ear marking.

The industry appreciates that surgical procedures on animals upsets people, however as with household pets and indeed humans, sometimes husbandry procedures are required for the welfare of the animals.

The Facts

  • Routine surgical procedures on both cattle and sheep are essential management measures that help ensure that livestock can be reared and delivered to market in the safest way possible for both the animal and the handler.
  • Australian cattle and sheep producers care for their animals and appreciate that best practice in animal husbandry is paramount to running a successful, sustainable and ethical business.
  • Industry works closely to ensure that the welfare of food-producing animals continues to be a priority and that the efforts that Australian beef and lamb producers invest in this crucial area are recognised.
  • Farmers that practice low stress handling can reduce stress on the animals during the husbandry practices and other activity on farm.


  • The most common beef cattle husbandry techniques are those performed at ‘branding time’ - this includes branding, castration and dehorning.

What is Branding?

What is Castration?

What is dehorning?

Branding is the placing of permanent identifying marks on the hide of an animal by destroying the hair follicles and altering hair regrowth.

Castration is the removal of the testicles from a male animal. Castration may be either immediate (surgical, using a blade) or delayed (non-surgical, using an elastic ring.)

Dehorning is the removal of the horns from cattle. It is a labour-intensive, skilled operation with important animal welfare implications, and is totally avoidable by breeding polled (hornless) cattle.

Tipping (removal of the insensitive sharp end of the horn) is not dehorning. It does little to reduce the disadvantages of having horned cattle, for example it does not reduce bruising, and tipped cattle can still be a danger to other cattle and handlers.


  • The cattle guidelines recommend the use of appropriate pain relief when castrating and dehorning cattle, unless cattle are:

    • less than six months old; or
    • less than 12 months old at their first yarding
  • Whilst there are guidelines, there is no legal requirement for the use of anaesthesia or analgesia.
  • Intense scientific effort has gone into understanding the welfare impacts of surgical husbandry procedures of cattle in the last 20 years.

  • It is clear from the science that all of the procedures under consideration cause pain, but also demonstrates that options are available to greatly reduce or eliminate the pain of these procedures.


  • Sheep are kept in various situations from extensive grazing to close confinement and housing depending on their location and use. Whatever the form of sheep farming, owners, agents, managers and handlers are responsible for the health and wellbeing of the animals.

  • The most common sheep husbandry techniques are those performed at ‘lamb-marking time’ and include tail docking, castration, earmarking and ear tagging.

What is tail docking?

What is castration?

What is earmarking?

What is ear tagging?

Tail docking is the removal of a portion of a sheep’s tail. Best practise is the hot knife or rubber ring methods, in preference to the sharp knife method or other cutting methods, except for larger tails.

Castration is the removal or disruption of the function of the testes by excision, or by constriction and/or crushing of testicular blood supply (rubber ring or clamp).

An earmark is a cut or mark in the ear of livestock, made to show ownership, year of birth or gender. This is usualy done by using a sharp pair of earmarking pliers.

An ear tag is a plastic object used for identification of livestock. It is placed in the ear using a custom made ear tagging tool.


  • Surgical procedures may cause stress and pain however this can be reduced with minimal restraint and competent operators.

  • Tail docking is a recommended practice for blowfly control. Sheep blowfly strike is a crippling condition that accounts for thousands of sheep deaths every year. The disease is caused by sheep blowflies laying their eggs on a moist area of the sheep’s wool. When the eggs hatch; the maggots feed on the sheep’s skin causing severe pain and death if untreated.

  • Mulesing involves the removal of wool-bearing skin from the tail and breach area of the sheep – it is intended to prevent flystrike and provides a high degree of lifetime protection against it. Mulesing is only carried out in circumstances in which it is clearly in the best interests of the long-term welfare of the animal.  It is not done to prime lambs (sheep produced for meat) and the breeding of Merinos that don’t require mulesing is well underway.

  • The only registered pain relief product available for sheep is currently only licenced for use following mulesing. This is likely to improve in 2015.

The Research