Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Docking pain protocol could be on its way, researcher says

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Pain relief will be required of top-end Merino suppliers, and there are hints the practice might become universal.
After farming for 40-plus years, Steve Wyn-Harris ponders if the younger generation is better equipped to deal with today’s farming challenges than baby boomers.
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An animal welfare researcher says rules around tail docking and castration for sheep might move into line with standards that apply to suppliers of The NZ Merino Company, who will soon have to administer pain relief.

Farmers wanting to supply wool with a Responsible Wool Standard stamp have to give pain relief to lambs at castration and tail docking/tailing. All growers supplying NZ Merino ZQ will need to do this by 2025.

Massey University’s Dr Kat Littlewood told the Farmers Weekly In Focus podcast that current regulations require pain relief for lambs over six months old, but using it on all animals is only a recommendation.

“It’s really important to look at the recommendations that we have in our guidelines in our national legislation, because those kind of give us a little bit of a hint of what’s coming,” Littlewood said.

“So the current recommendations are that all tail docking, whatever the age, should have pain relief. That’s kind of a little bit of a hint of what might be happening in the future, because the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, when they’re putting together codes of welfare, they kind of look at the future and give us some guidance of what might be coming. So we might see some of those recommendations moved into the minimum standard bracket.”

The NZ Merino Company told Farmers Weekly that requiring pain relief is vital to maintain growers’ position at the premium end of the market. 

But Littlewood said other key sheep producers are making moves in this space as well.

“Definitely, we’re looking at going in the same direction as the United Kingdom. They can’t really restrict market access on welfare grounds at the moment in terms of international trade considerations. But there are moves that might be a requirement at the customer level. So supermarkets importing the product might require it, rather than at the government level. That’s definitely something we need to stay ahead of.”

Massey University’s Dr Kat Littlewood says recommendations in the guidelines in national legislation give an indication of what is coming.

Littlewood said our extensive farming systems pose greater challenges to farmers having to evolve their practices.

“How easy is it to provide that pain relief? For example, local anaesthetic takes about 20 minutes to actually have any effect. 

“So the ideal thing would be to inject the local anaesthetic, wait 20 minutes, and then do the castration or docking. 

“But obviously that’s quite difficult to do in a practical setting when you’ve got thousands of lambs that you’re wanting to castrate and dock. How practical is that?”

NZ sheep are not as accustomed to being handled as those in the UK might be.

“It is actually a potential welfare issue if we’re double handling them or handling them for longer times. 

“In the UK, for example, they are more intensively reared so they’re more used to being handled. So that kind of double handling is less problematic from a welfare sense, as well. So there’s all these other things that we have to think about.”

Littlewood said welfare is another of the standards, along with emissions efficiency and environmental wellbeing, that high-end buyers are focusing on.

“Those luxury items, fashion items, are bringing in these higher welfare considerations to maintain a certain market positioning and to reduce reputational risks. So that needs to be in the back of farmers’ minds if they want to sell into those higher markets.”

In Focus this week: Animal welfare standards and the global market

Bryan talks with Massey University lecturer in animal welfare Dr Kat Littlewood about changes to welfare standards for Merino farmers, as well as some of the other global shifts in welfare standards that might be coming.

Then, Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford discusses why they’ve teamed up with Forest & Bird to tackle wild pests.

And Richard Rennie looks at the closure of two rural birthing units in the North Island.

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