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.
This requirement is set to see many Merino growers carry out the procedure in the tailing pen this spring. Vet Marlborough responded by running a farmer accreditation day to train their Marlborough clients in the use of pain relief. This was one of the first pain relief days of its type, said Heath Dickson, Vet Marlborough rural business manager.
It involved two veterinarians assessing about 20 farmers’ ability to correctly treat lambs with injectable local anaesthetic, oral and injected anti-inflammatory or spray-on local anaesthetic. The paperwork was done on the spot and farmers indicated which product they liked best, so Vet Marlborough could plan orders.
“A couple of clients gave local pain relief last year, to meet wool contracts, and one has been using Numnuts for several years,” Dickson said.
“We have at least 16 affected clients in Marlborough and my North Canterbury counterpart said they had at least three.
“It’s only going to grow and I do see the strong-wool growers also being included in time.”
Veterinarian Mary Bowron said veterinarians are still coming to grips with how to advise farmer clients.
“We need to give practical and cost-effective advice to farmers,” Bowron said.
“As veterinarians we want to prescribe what is best for the animal – effective and appropriate pain control.”
The market drive for making pain relief compulsory is coming from Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit organisation that aims to create leaders in the sustainable fibre and materials industry. The Responsible Wool Standard is owned and managed by Textile Exchange.
Its suite of standards allows brands and retailers to choose between wool growers and fibre types. Buying wool from growers that meet the Responsible Wool Standard assures that tail docking is only carried out if failure to do so would lead to welfare problems. It must occur between 24 hours and eight weeks of age.
Castration is allowed where it benefits lifetime sheep welfare, better flock management and a reduced health and safety risk to handlers. Lambs destined for slaughter before they are 12 weeks old, or before the onset of puberty, should not be castrated, it states. Pain relief must be given for both procedures if a licensed product is available in that country, for that species.
Bowron said cortisol hormone level is one way to measure stress and related pain in lambs. A ranking system has been developed from one to six, to allow meaningful comparisons of cortisol response in lambs.
“Separating lambs from ewes at the age of four to eight weeks scores a similar cortisol response to hot-iron docking or putting a rubber ring on the tail, while castration by rubber ring without pain relief is four out of six on the scale.”
“This suggests castration is more painful than tail removal by cauterisation or rubber ring.”
The two main pain relief options showcased at host farm Richmond Brook were local anaesthetic and anti-inflammatories (similar to ibuprofen for humans). The products have a different dose rate depending on the weight of their lambs.
“How many people know the weight of their lambs at tailing time?” Bowron asked.
The cheapest option is an injection of local, although two injections are currently recommended on the testicles (each side) and possibly one or two for the tail (each side). Four doses would cost around $0.48/ram lamb, and it would be half that for the ewe lamb (tail only).
Heath Dickson said that this is dependent on the price each clinic can source product at and their buying power.
“Price will also vary as this rolls out.”
The dose should be adjusted for weight, he said, as overdosing of small lambs is possible. Tri-solfen gel spray is the next cheapest option but covers only the tail wound. This is around $0.43 per 2ml dose plus GST. This approach also needs something to cover rubber ring castration, for example the Numnut device or local injection.
One farmer at the accreditation day questioned the efficacy when mixing the gel with fly protection. The company states on its flyer that is fine to spray insecticide on after using Tri-Solfen. At the field day, Vetrazin spray was used over the tail area, following the gel. The gel had a visible stickability factor.
Behind the scenes, product labelling and veterinary services are racing to keep ahead of the rollout. Vet Marlborough was uncertain if farmers needed to be accredited each year although, for veterinary operating instructions, it should be annually, Bowron said.
In response to demand for using Tri-solfen for tailing, the meat withholding period for Tri-solfen has been updated from 91 days to four days meat withholding, Bowron said.
“The label hasn’t changed on the packaging yet, so a sticker has been added to the containers with the updated meat withhold time.”
Buccalgesic oral dose is given into the cheek pouch, while the other option, the Meloxicam injection, goes under the skin, either in the neck or the armpit. Both are anti-inflammatories and a one-pass option. The verdict at the field day was they were convenient but more expensive than local. They are not effective on acute pain. The anti-inflammatories take 15-20 minutes to take effect.
The NZ Veterinary Association Sheep and Beef Committee hosted a webinar for its members this week, to discuss the issue of providing the best advice on pain relief.
Dave Robertson, of Oamaru Veterinary Centre and a member of the committee, said vets have to be at the centre of the decisions on pain relief.
“They have the mix of the practical and the science.
“We have very good castration and tailing systems already – with past research into ideal pressures for rubber rings and the effect of cauterisation, that stops the nerve firing and numbs any pain.”
He suggested some of the current pharmaceutical options may not totally eliminate acute pain, but farmers requiring Responsible Wool Standard accreditation will have to use them at this point. Anti-inflammatories have been tested and work for inflammatory conditions like cuts, he said, but may not be that effective on castration pain.
He said he expects non-pharmaceutical options to become available over time and gave the example of the Clipfitter tool, developed in the United Kingdom, for numbing the pain without medication.
He said Australia started earlier on giving pain relief so it can continue mulesing. “We don’t do that here,” he said.
He sees the association as having a role in developing and auditing a best practice for pain relief for lambs, like it does for managing brucellosis disease in rams.
“Our role is also to co-ordinate the thinking of sheep and beef vets, to make sure the advice is practical for farmers and shows good stewardship of pharmaceuticals.
“Velvet removal is audited independently, by the Food Safety Association, as it is a food ingredient, so has more stringent requirements.”
There is research available as to lamb recovery and growth rates using different products, but Robertson said this issue is about welfare.
The New Zealand Merino Company, which was represented on the day, is rolling out adoption of pain relief and has negotiated with Textile Exchange for a staged process for its ZQ growers. It operates a combined audit process for its ZQ growers who also meet the Responsible Wool Standard.
Dave Maslen, chief partnerships and sustainability officer for NZ Merino, said all ZQ growers need to be using pain relief by June 2025.
“We know this is a significant practice change … and prescribing these products at scale is new to many vets, so we have negotiated a stepped pathway towards implementation.”
Farm groups have been split into three, based on the amount of exposure each property has to the market. The first group is required to use pain relief from June this year, the second group from June 2024 and the remaining growers in 2025. This includes lambs born on the property that may not supply accredited wool.
Textile Exchange describes itself as playing “a powerful role within the textile industry to support the understanding and use of sustainable materials and proper verification strategies”.
Maslen said adoption is needed to maintain growers’ position at the premium end of the market.
“If we delay or defer on this issue we will not only reduce the relevance of growers’ wool and optionality in the markets they target, but risk losing existing and potential brand partners that require Responsible Wool Standard certification, and damage the reputation of ZQ wool in the market.”
Andrew Richmond of Richmond Brook supplied the lambs for Marlborough farmers to become accredited. All lambs from the 3600 Romney ewes and 800 Merino ewes will get pain relief this tailing.
“We have a New Zealand Merino Company contract so we have to,” Richmond said.
He said they have added a labour unit to the tailing team to get it done, and chose to use Meloxicam, a single injection under the skin, which covers tails and testicles.
“Local is cheaper but it is more involved and everything seems to be happening at one end of the lamb when using local.”
Tom Harvey, Glen Orkney Stud, has used pain relief on their Merino lambs for three years and uses the Numnuts device. This delivers the rubber ring over the testicles and local pain relief in one device.
“I’ll probably stick with Numnuts and one pottle of local does 66 lambs.”
He certainly had the technique down pat and was fast with it.
Bowron said that farmers shouldn’t fry up and eat lambs’ tails from lambs treated with anti-inflammatory. Local anaesthetic is probably fine as it’s given above the tail cut, she said.