Disbudding and dehorning


Source: National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle Section 4.4

Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle

| PDF |

ISBN 978-0-9920910-0-2 (book)
ISBN 978-0-9920910-2-6 (electronic book text)

Available from:

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
180, 6815 – 8th Street NE, Calgary AB T2E 7H7 CANADA
Telephone: (403) 275-8558
Fax: (403) 274-5686
Website: www.cattle.ca
Email: feedback@cattle.ca

For information on the Code of Practice development process contact:

National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC)
Email: nfacc@xplornet.com
Website: www.nfacc.ca

Also available in French

© Copyright is jointly held by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the National Farm Animal Care Council (2013)

This publication may be reproduced for personal or internal use provided that its source is fully acknowledged. However, multiple copy reproduction of this publication in whole or in part for any purpose (including but not limited to resale or redistribution) requires the kind permission of the National Farm Animal Care Council (see www.nfacc.ca for contact information).


Funding for this project has been provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Agricultural Flexibility Fund, as part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan.


Information contained in this publication is subject to periodic review in light of changing practices, government requirements and regulations. No subscriber or reader should act on the basis of any such information without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without seeking appropriate professional advice. Although every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, the authors shall not be held responsible for loss or damage caused by errors, omissions, misprints or misinterpretation of the contents hereof. Furthermore, the authors expressly disclaim all and any liability to any person, whether the purchaser of the publication or not, in respect of anything done or omitted, by any such person in reliance on the contents of this publication.

Table of Contents

Section 1 Animal Environment
1.1 Protection from Extreme Weather
1.1.1 High Temperature and Humidity
1.1.2 Extreme Cold
1.2 Facilities for All Cattle
1.3 Additional Facilities for Calving Cows
Section 2 Feed and Water
2.1 Nutrition and Feed Management
2.2 Water
Section 3 Animal Health
3.1 Herd Health Management
3.2 Sick, Injured and Cull Cattle
3.3 Health Conditions Related to Feedlot Cattle
3.3.1 Managing Risk of Bovine Respiratory Disease
3.3.2 Lameness
3.3.3 Nutritional Disorders Associated with High Energy Feeding
3.3.4 Buller-Steer Syndrome
3.3.5 Managing Pregnant Heifers in the Feedlot
3.4 Safety and Emergencies
Section 4 Animal Husbandry
4.1 Handling and Moving Cattle
4.2 Reproduction and Calving Management
4.2.1 Colostrum Management
4.3 Identification
4.4 Disbudding and Dehorning
4.5 Castration
4.6 Weaning
4.7 Predator Control
4.8 Tail Docking
Section 5 Transportation
5.1 Pre-Transport Decision Making and Preparation for Transport
5.2 Arranging Transport
5.3 Loading and Receiving
Section 6 On-Farm Euthanasia
6.1 Euthanasia and Culling Decisions
6.2 Methods of On-Farm Euthanasia
6.3 Confirmation of Insensibility and Death
Appendix A Body Condition Scoring
Appendix B Nutrient Requirement Guidelines for Beef Cows and Growing Beef Cattle
Appendix C Calving: When and How to Help
Appendix D Transport Decision Tree
Appendix E Lameness Descriptions Rendering Animals Compromised or Unfit for Transport
Appendix F Euthanasia – Secondary Kill Steps: Bleeding Out and Pithing
Appendix G Resources for Further Information
Appendix H Participants
Appendix I Summary of Code Requirements


The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) Code development process was followed in the development of this Code of Practice. This Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattlereplaces its predecessor developed in 1991 and published by Agriculture Canada.

The NFACC Code development process aims to:

  • link Codes with science
  • ensure transparency in the process
  • include broad representation from stakeholders
  • contribute to improvements in farm animal care
  • identify research priorities and encourage work in these priority areas
  • write clearly to ensure ease of reading, understanding and implementation
  • provide a document that is useful for all stakeholders.

The Codes of Practice are nationally developed guidelines for the care and handling of farm animals. They serve as our national understanding of animal care requirements and recommended practices. Codes promote sound management and welfare practices for housing, care, transportation and other animal husbandry practices.

Codes of Practice have been developed for virtually all farmed animal species in Canada. NFACC’s website provides access to all currently available Codes (www.nfacc.ca).

The Codes of Practice are the result of a rigourous Code development process, taking into account the best science available for each species, compiled through an independent peer-reviewed process, along with stakeholder input. The Code development process also takes into account the practical requirements for each species necessary to promote consistent application across Canada and ensure uptake by stakeholders resulting in beneficial animal outcomes. Given their broad use by numerous parties in Canada today, it is important for all to understand how they are intended to be interpreted.

Requirements – These refer to either a regulatory requirement, or an industry imposed expectation outlining acceptable and unacceptable practices and are fundamental obligations relating to the care of animals. Requirements represent a consensus position that these measures, at minimum, are to be implemented by all persons responsible for farm animal care. When included as part of an assessment program, those who fail to implement Requirements may be compelled by industry associations to undertake corrective measures, or risk a loss of market options. Requirements also may be enforceable under federal and provincial regulation.

Recommended Practices – Code Recommended Practices may complement a Code’s Requirements, promote producer education and can encourage adoption of practices for continuous improvement in animal welfare outcomes. Recommended Practices are those which are generally expected to enhance animal welfare outcomes, but failure to implement them does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not met.

Broad representation and expertise on each Code Development Committee ensures collaborative Code development. Stakeholder commitment is key to ensure quality animal care standards are established and implemented.

This Code represents a consensus amongst diverse stakeholder groups. Consensus results in a decision that everyone agrees advances animal welfare but does not imply unanimous endorsement of every aspect of the Code. Codes play a central role in Canada’s farm animal welfare system as part of a process of continuous improvement. As a result, they need to be reviewed and updated regularly. Codes should be reviewed at least every five years following publication and updated at least every ten years.

A key feature of NFACC’s Code development process is the Scientific Committee. It is widely accepted that animal welfare Codes, guidelines, standards or legislation should take advantage of the best available research.

A Scientific Committee review of priority animal welfare issues for the species being addressed provided valuable information to the Code Development Committee in developing this Code of Practice. The Scientific Committee report is peer reviewed and publicly available, enhancing the transparency and credibility of the Code.

The ‘Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle: Review of scientific research on priority issues’ developed by the beef cattle Code of Practice Scientific Committee is available on NFACC’s website (www.nfacc.ca).


In 1980, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies began coordinating the process of developing Codes of Practice for all livestock species. In 1991, the Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Animals – Beef Cattle was developed from an original working draft contracted by the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association to Dr. Frank Hurnik, Professor, Poultry and Animal Science, University of Guelph, Ontario. This draft was then submitted to all of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s (CCA) provincial associations for review and input. Through agreement between the CCA and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and Agriculture Canada, a review committee chaired by Dr. Hurnik brought together individuals representing the industry, professional agricultural and veterinary associations, transporters, processors, and auction markets, research, Food Production and Inspection branches of Agriculture Canada, and animal care and welfare organizations.

Since 2005, the responsibility for developing and revising Canada’s Codes of Practice has fallen under the mandate of the National Farm Animal Care Council (www.nfacc.ca). This revised Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle was updated through a similar consultation and review process, by a committee representing a wide range of stakeholders (Appendix H), according to the Code development process developed by NFACC (www.nfacc.ca/code-development-process).

All herd sizes require adequate human resources to ensure proper care and well-being of the animals. Everyone handling cattle should be familiar with their normal behaviour and should use low stress, behaviour-based cattle handling techniques. The selection and training of personnel are the most important factors in ensuring that cattle will be managed humanely. All personnel working with cattle or managing cattle facilities should be experienced or properly trained regarding humane handling, equipment use, and livestock care. They should understand their responsibilities and ensure that routine cattle management practices promote animal well-being and avoid unnecessary suffering of cattle. Calm, healthy cattle have higher productivity and economic value than stressed or ill cattle. However, an equal standard of humane treatment must be provided to cattle that have less economic value (e.g. cull cows, downers and chronically ill cattle).

The Canadian beef industry involves seedstock and cow-calf producers, backgrounding and feedlot operations, transporters, sale yards and assembly stations, veterinarians and packing plants operating under diverse climatic and geographical conditions. Cattle care is practised all along the production chain and the well-being of beef cattle can be safeguarded under a variety of husbandry and management systems.

Most husbandry systems impose restrictions on some freedoms of cattle. However, producers should consider the following:

  • shelter for protection and comfort
  • feed and water to maintain optimal health
  • freedom of movement, exercise, and opportunity to express most normal behaviours
  • company of herd mates
  • footing that reduces the risk of slipping
  • disease prevention and control
  • veterinary care, diagnosis, and treatment
  • freedom from unnecessary pain and discomfort
  • emergency preparedness for fire, mechanical breakdowns, and the disruption of feed supplies.

This Code focuses on the animal. Where possible, it is outcome-based, and is intended to achieve a workable balance between the best interests of the cattle, producers, and consumers. It recognizes the basic principle that the well-being of cattle is a prime consideration and that cattle treated well benefit producers. The Code aims to meet scientifically valid and feasible approaches to meeting cattle health and welfare needs throughout the production system contributing to a sustainable and internationally competitive Canadian beef industry.

This Code is not intended to describe all production and management practices relevant to each stage of beef production. Instead, principles applicable to all sectors of the industry are presented along with some sector-specific considerations.

Anyone building new, modifying or assuming management of existing cattle facilities will need to be familiar with local, provincial, and federal requirements for construction, environmental management, and other areas outside the scope of this document. Individuals requiring further details should refer to local sources of information such as universities, agricultural ministries, and industry resources (see Appendix G).

The Code is a guideline for the care and handling of beef cattle. All provincial and federal acts and regulations must always take precedence. Causing unnecessary pain or suffering or willful neglect is illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada and under most provincial statutes. It is of benefit to the whole Canadian cattle industry that anyone witnessing animal neglect or cruelty takes some action to remedy the situation, by helping to educate the producer, or by contacting the appropriate cattle producers’ organization or animal welfare authorities.

The beef cattle Code of Practice reflects current beef management practices. It identifies welfare hazards, opportunities and methods to assure well-being. The authors recognize producers have more than one way to ensure welfare of their livestock.

In 2012, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) approved new production guidelines for beef cattle production, aimed at improving the health and welfare of beef cattle globally (Chapter 7.9 of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code (1)). As a member of the OIE, Canada is committed to these guidelines, and the Code Development Committee has kept them in mind during the revision of this Code of Practice (1).

This Code pertains to cattle of all ages in beef production. Where special provisions for cattle under six months apply, the word calf has been used. This Code applies to male and female cattle being raised for their meat. It does not apply to associated industries (e.g. veal, dairy). However, cattle from other sectors, when brought into a beef production operation, are subject to this Code.

Section 1  Animal Environment

Desired Outcomes:

  • All cattle are kept under conditions conducive to their safety, health, comfort, nourishment, and humane handling.
  • Cattle can express natural behaviour.
  • Cattle are not adversely affected by extremes in weather, such as cold, floods, freezing rain, storms, and heat waves.

1.1 Protection from Extreme Weather

Beef cattle in Canada are housed in a variety of ways depending on age, size, and reproductive state. Systems may include range conditions, fields, corrals or yards, indoor pens or stalls. Treed areas or geographical features (such as coulees) can provide shelter from wind and sun (2).

Animals’ ability to cope with sudden changes in weather or adverse weather events varies with many factors, such as:

  • age (especially newborn calves)
  • body condition score
  • access to feed, water, and shelter
  • degree of acclimation (e.g. winter hair coat)
  • health status
  • stress (such as newly-arrived feedlot cattle).


Cattle must have access to areas, either natural or man-made, that provide relief from weather that is likely to create a serious risk to their welfare.

Promptly assist individual cattle showing signs of not coping with adverse weather (see Sections 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 for lists of signs).

1.1.1 High Temperature and Humidity

Cattle are generally able to tolerate low temperatures better than high temperatures. Humidity levels and ventilation affect an animal’s ability to cope with heat stress. Extreme heat is generally more stressful to cattle early in the summer season before they have had a chance to acclimate to the increased temperatures (3).

Signs of heat stress in cattle include (4-6):

  • open-mouth panting with tongue protruding
  • laboured breathing
  • drooling or froth around the mouth.

Cattle are at risk of heat stress when combined temperature and humidity exceed a Humidex value of 40. However, factors such as shade, air movement and length of exposure all influence the impact of high Humidex values on cattle (3).

Heat stress can lead to reductions in feed intake, weight gain, reproductive efficiency and milk production. Severe heat stress may result in illness and death (7).

Water requirements are greater during hot weather.


  1. When cattle are showing signs of heat stress, consider the following strategies (3):
    • provide shade
    • avoid handling cattle
    • feed cattle at dusk or dawn
    • moisten the ground in part of the pen
    • sprinkle cattle with water.

1.1.2 Extreme Cold

Although cattle can generally tolerate colder temperatures if acclimatized, wet cattle (especially newborn calves), cattle in poor body condition, and cattle fed inadequate energy are less able to cope with cold temperatures (3). Cattle require additional feed resources during cold weather (8).

Signs that cattle are not coping well with extreme cold (hypothermia) include:

  • shivering (cattle may stop shivering if hypothermia worsens)
  • low core body temperature (less than 35 °C or 96 °F)
  • cold mouth
  • inability to get up
  • no suckling reflex (in calves)
  • frostbite (especially newborn calves).


Provide additional feed to meet animals’ increased energy requirements when facing cold stress.


  1. provide bedding to insulate against bare ground and to reduce mud and manure build-up on hides, which can increase heat loss (3).

1.2 Facilities for All Cattle

The Canadian beef industry comprises the cow-calf, backgrounder and feedlot sectors. Production practices for all sectors have developed in response to Canada’s diverse climatic and geographical conditions. Even though the areas involved may be large, facilities for pastured or range cattle still require monitoring and maintenance. It is beyond the scope of this Code to describe all shelter and housing facilities used in beef cattle production. Individuals requiring further details should refer to local sources of information, such as universities, agricultural and environmental ministries, producer organizations, and experienced beef producers (9) (see Appendix G).

Outcome-based measures that the livestock producer can use for assessing the suitability of housing and stocking density include morbidity and mortality rates for lameness and injuries, changes in normal cattle behaviour, such as bulling/riding, poor performance (e.g. body weight, average daily gain, feed efficiency, daily dry matter intake), and abnormal physical appearance (1).


All beef operations must have access to equipment or facilities for the safe handling, restraint, treatment, segregation, loading, and unloading of cattle.

Design or manage indoor and outdoor cattle facilities to provide well-drained, comfortable resting areas.

Provide traction in handling areas to minimize cattle slips and falls.

All cattle in a group must have sufficient space to adopt normal resting postures at the same time.

Cattle kept in groups must be able to move freely around the pen and access feed and water.

Stocking density must be managed such that weight gain and duration of time spent lying is not adversely affected by crowding.

Maintain indoor air quality and ventilation at all times (ammonia levels < 25ppm).

Provide cattle housed indoors that do not have access to natural light with supplementary lighting to allow natural behaviour patterns and monitoring of the cattle.


  1. ensure that all cattle facilities and areas are safe and free of hazards that can cause injury
  2. provide a separate area with dry bedding for the recovery of severely sick or injured cattle
  3. consider biosecurity measures when designing and managing cattle facilities
  4. ensure restraint devices are used properly. Pressure that causes pain or discomfort can cause cattle to panic and should be avoided
  5. minimize noise from handling equipment to facilitate movement. High-pitched sounds are especially disturbing to cattle
  6. provide daily exercise for any cattle that are tethered. Tethering devices must be safe for the animals and should not interfere with the actions of standing up or lying down. Tethering devices should be regularly inspected for proper function and safety.

1.3 Additional Facilities for Calving Cows

Beef cows typically calve outside. If calving occurs during periods of extremely cold weather, sheltered, bedded calving areas (natural or constructed) can protect the cow and calf during this vulnerable time (3). Cows typically separate themselves from the rest of the herd as calving approaches. Isolating a calving cow or a cow-calf pair in an individual pen may benefit the cow and the calf if intervention is required.

Newborn calves are susceptible to disease, so calving facilities should be designed and maintained to minimize disease transmission. In particular, calf scours can be a problem, especially in confined calving areas, which can become progressively more contaminated as the calving season progresses. The risk of scours is reduced by maintaining dry conditions and preventing contact with infected cattle.


Provide an environment that is safe and clean for calving and that promotes calf survival.


  1. keep calving areas free of cattle until just prior to calving. This will minimize manure contamination and help reduce calf diseases
  2. if calving indoors, be prepared to separate calving cows and heifers into pens with adequate bedding
  3. maintain calving areas and areas housing cows with young calves in such a way as to reduce the contact of young calves with manure, noting that such areas become increasingly contaminated as the calving season progresses.

2 Feed and Water

Desired Outcome: Cattle are in optimum health and body condition.

2.1 Nutrition and Feed Management

Cattle need to be monitored on an ongoing basis and feed resources must be well-managed and readily-available according to the animals’ changing needs and environmental conditions. Cattle that are not fed adequately will lose body condition, will not perform to their capacity, and are more likely to have reduced immune function (10-12). Signs that cattle are not able to access sufficient feed or water include increased vocalizing, roaming, and breaking through fences.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is an important tool for determining if an animal is too thin (BCS of less than 2 out of 5), too fat (BCS greater than 4 out of 5), or in ideal condition (Appendix A). Ideal body condition scores will vary depending upon stage of production (Table 2.1). Body condition scoring also allows producers to optimize the utilization of feed resources and animal productivity. Be aware that body condition scores are most applicable to mature cattle and may be of little use for cattle under one year of age. Note that the cause of poor body condition is not always nutritional.

Feeding space required depends on type of feed, feeding frequency, amount of feed, presence of horned cattle, animal size, and group size. Increased animal density in the pen increases competition among cattle for access to feed, water and resting areas. Reduced space per animal at the feed bunk also increases competitive interactions among cattle, reduces bunk attendance times, and increases the time spent waiting for access to feed. This might not cause problems for dominant cattle, but it does directly affect subordinate animals, and can result in uneven feed intakes and reduced growth.

Guidance on minimizing diseases associated with high-energy feeding is provided in Section 3.3.3.

Table 2.1 – Body Condition Score Targets for Beef Cattle (10) (assuming spring calving)

Stage of Production Target BCS (out of 5)
30 days before start of breeding 2.5 – cows
3.0 – heifers
3.0-3.5 – bulls
Start of winter feeding program 3.0 – all females
3.0-3.5 – bulls
Calving 2.5 – mature cows
3.0 – bred and first-calf heifers


Monitor cattle behaviour, performance, body condition score and health on an ongoing basis and adjust the feeding program accordingly.

Ensure cattle have access to feed of adequate quality and quantity to fulfill their nutritional needs at all times, and maintain proper body condition, taking into account factors such as: age, frame size, reproductive status, health status, level of production, competition and weather.

Take prompt corrective action to improve the body condition score of cattle with a score of 2 or less (out of 5).

Take steps to prevent exposure of cattle to toxins (such as lead batteries, fertilizer, treated seed, antifreeze, nitrates) and to avoid feed with adverse physical qualities that could cause injury or limit intake.


  1. test nutrient content of feed ingredients used and balance rations as necessary. Consult a nutritionist for advice
  2. become familiar with potential micronutrient deficiencies or excesses in your geographic area and use appropriately-formulated supplements
  3. manage feedstuffs in a way to maintain quality and minimize spoilage
  4. avoid sudden or extreme ration changes
  5. provide a less competitive feeding environment for sick, injured, weak or convalescing cattle.

2.2 Water

Cattle need access to water of adequate quality and quantity to fulfill their physiological needs. Water availability and quality are extremely important for cattle health and productivity. Beef cattle will drink between 26-66L (5-14gal) per day (13). Water quality and palatability affect water consumption. Cattle may limit their water intake to the point of dehydration if the quality of drinking water is compromised (14).

Snow is used as a water source in some extensive western Canadian beef operations. There is scientific evidence that cattle can maintain body condition using loose snow for water under certain specific conditions (15). These conditions can be highly variable, and can result in risks to cattle welfare if they are not carefully monitored. These variables include snow conditions and quality, feed quality, cattle body condition and weather conditions.

It is extremely important to ensure there is a sufficient supply of loose, clean snow (15,16). Further, cattle with higher energy requirements (such as growing, lactating or in poor condition) risk losing excess energy when accessing and melting snow. It can take inexperienced cattle several days to learn to consume snow as a primary water source so they should be monitored during this acclimation period (17). Using snow as a sole winter water source is not appropriate in all geographic areas, even within the same province. Contact your local or regional beef cattle specialist or your veterinarian for advice (See Appendix G).


Ensure that cattle have access to palatable water of adequate quality and quantity to fulfill their physiological needs. Monitor water sources, feeding habits, behaviour, performance and health on an ongoing basis and be prepared to adjust the watering program accordingly.

Snow may only be used as a sole winter water source providing it is of sufficient quantity and quality to meet the animals’ physiological requirements.

Snow must not be used as a sole water source for the following cattle:

  • lactating, or
  • newly-weaned, or
  • that have a body condition score of less than 2.5 out of 5, or
  • that don’t have access to optimal feed resources.

Only adequate quantities of clean, loose snow may serve as the sole water source. Monitor snow conditions on an ongoing basis.

Have a back-up water source in the event of insufficient loose snow or an interruption in water supply.


  1. ensure that water sources are easy for cattle to locate and access
  2. manage cattle and water sources to avoid competition that would limit access to water
  3. check automated water sources daily to ensure they are dispensing properly
  4. test water quality in the event of problems such as poor performance, reluctance to drink, or reduced feed consumption
  5. if utilizing natural water sources, provide water in troughs or bowls wherever possible to ensure cleanliness of water supply and safe animal access
  6. be aware of the signs of stray (tingle) voltage around water sources, such as reluctance to drink or reduced feed consumption
  7. if using a frozen-over natural water source in winter, provide an area of open water and restrict cattle from areas of thin ice.

3 Animal Health

Desired Outcome: Optimum health and welfare are maintained through a combination of appropriate disease prevention and control measures and prompt treatment of illness, injury and disease.

3.1 Herd Health Management

Pain and discomfort caused by health issues impact an animal’s well-being such that good animal welfare requires good animal health (14). Disease prevention is extremely important. Herd health management and biosecurity protocols can help prevent and contain diseases. Producers need to be able to promptly recognize and treat animal health issues in order to optimize animal welfare.

Veterinarians play a key role in helping producers meet these animal health obligations. Although the specific regulations vary among provinces, in order for veterinarians to prescribe some classes of medications and vaccines, they must have a valid Veterinarian/Client/Patient Relationship (VCPR).

A Veterinarian/Client/Patient Relationship exists when all of the following conditions have been met (18):

  • the veterinarian has assumed the responsibility for making clinical judgments regarding the health of the cattle and the need for medical treatment, and the client has agreed to follow the veterinarian’s instructions
  • the veterinarian has sufficient knowledge of the animal(s) to initiate at least a general or preliminary diagnosis of the medical condition of the animal(s). This means that the veterinarian has recently seen and is personally acquainted with the keeping and care of the animal(s) by virtue of an examination of the animal(s) or by medically appropriate and timely visits to the premises where the animal(s) are kept
  • the veterinarian is readily available for follow-up evaluation, or has arranged for emergency coverage, in the event of adverse reactions or failure of the treatment regimen.

An effective Herd Health Management Program contributes to cattle well-being by providing a strategy for disease prevention, rapid diagnosis and effective treatment.


Establish an ongoing working relationship (VCPR) with a licensed practicing veterinarian and develop a strategy for disease prevention and herd health.


  1. maintain accurate animal management and health records.

3.2 Sick, Injured and Cull Cattle

More frequent monitoring of cattle may be necessary during weather that may compromise animal welfare, calving and post-weaning periods, and when multiple stressors occur simultaneously (e.g. weaning, transportation, commingling, etc.). Adequate monitoring ensures timely detection and treatment of sick or injured cattle. Treatment may vary from therapeutic interventions to convalescent care. Some examples of convalescent care may include (but are not limited to): segregation, easier access to feed and water, reduced competition and increased monitoring.

Be aware that cattle may hide their expression of pain or suffering, and that this may affect your assessment of their condition in making decisions about treatment or euthanasia (19).

Cattle owners, veterinarians, and laboratories are required to immediately report an animal that is infected or suspected of being infected with a reportable disease to a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) District Veterinarian. Reportable diseases are listed in the Health of Animals Act(www.laws.justice.gc.ca./eng/acts/H%2D3.3) and are usually of significant importance to human or animal health or to the Canadian economy.


Monitor cattle health on an ongoing basis to ensure prompt treatment or care.

Provide appropriate care, convalescence or treatment for sick, injured or lame cattle without delay.

Monitor the animals’ response to therapy or care and, if the initial treatment protocol fails, then reassess treatment options or seek veterinary advice.

Euthanize (or cull*) without delay cattle that:

  • are unlikely to recover, or
  • fail to respond to treatment and convalescent protocols, or
  • have chronic, severe, or debilitating pain and distress, or
  • are unable to get to or consume feed and water, or
  • show continuous weight loss or emaciation.

*If culling, Requirements for transporting compromised animals must be followed (refer toSection 5 – Transportation). Suspicion of a reportable disease as defined by the Health of Animals Act (www.laws.justice.gc.ca./eng/acts/H-3.3) and various provincial acts must be brought to the attention of a veterinarian.


  1. consult a veterinarian to address new, unknown, or suspicious illness or death losses
  2. consult a veterinarian if the incidence of a known illness suddenly increases
  3. consult a veterinarian for the most appropriate treatment options when an animal is sick
  4. monitor the progress of treated cattle
  5. dispose of dead cattle according to applicable provincial/municipal regulations.

3.3 Health Conditions Related to Feedlot Cattle

Feedlots are a site where cattle are frequently commingled. At certain times of the year, there is an increased risk of the transmission of disease due to multiple stressors, such as weaning and transportation. Feedlot managers need to be proactive in the prevention, early detection and treatment of illness.

3.3.1 Managing Risk of Bovine Respiratory Disease

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is a leading cause of sickness and mortality in the beef feedlot industry (3). Feedlot operators take a variety of management steps, including daily monitoring, to minimize the risk of BRD.

Some risk factors for bovine respiratory diseases are:

  • non-vaccinated cattle
  • recent weaning
  • transportation and handling
  • sudden or extreme changes in weather
  • commingling of cattle from various sources.

Early detection and prompt treatment decrease chronicity and mortality due to BRD and other diseases (3).


Monitor the behaviour of newly-arrived feedlot cattle to facilitate the early detection of illness.

Have a disease prevention strategy for new arrivals into a feedlot.


  1. categorize newly-arrived cattle according to risk for BRD and other illness and apply appropriate receiving protocols (3)
  2. whenever possible, buy calves of known source, vaccination history, and health status (3).

3.3.2 Lameness

There are multiple causes of lameness in cattle, including injury, nutrition and infection. An increased incidence of footrot is often associated with chronic wet conditions. A common cause of infectious arthritis is the bacterium Mycoplasma bovis which is also associated with bovine respiratory disease. Therefore, preventive measures for bovine respiratory disease may also help to reduce lameness caused by arthritis (3). Lameness due to injury can be reduced through good facility design and low-stress handling techniques, both of which help reduce slips and falls (refer to Section 1 – Animal Environment and Section 4 – Animal Husbandry).


Provide appropriate care, convalescence or treatment for lame cattle without delay.

Monitor the animals’ response to therapy or care and, if the initial treatment protocol fails, then reassess treatment options or seek veterinary advice.

Promptly cull or euthanize lame cattle that have a poor prognosis for recovery, or that do not respond to therapy or care (See Appendix E).


  1. see Appendices D, E and F to assist in decision-making around culling and euthanasia
  2. manage pen conditions to minimize mud and standing water
  3. work with your veterinarian to identify and resolve sudden increases in the incidence of lameness.

3.3.3 Nutritional Disorders Associated with High Energy Feeding

Nutritional disorders associated with high energy feeding include acidosis (grain overload), liver abscesses, and laminitis. In most cases, acidosis is the predisposing factor to liver abscesses and laminitis (20-22).

Acidosis is the result of a complex interaction among meal patterns and quantity, diet fermentability, ruminal microorganisms, and mechanisms of acid removal by the animal (23,24). Acute acidosis causes overt illness and is potentially fatal in cattle, whereas cattle with sub-acute acidosis may not appear sick but have reduced or variable feed intake and weight gain (25).


Design, implement, evaluate and adjust your feeding program to reduce the risk of nutrition-induced disorders, and consult your veterinarian or a nutritionist when needed.

Transition cattle from high-forage to high-energy rations gradually to avoid abrupt dietary changes.


  1. monitor feed bunks to assess prior consumption and adjust feeding accordingly (3)
  2. include forage of effective particle length in all diets to reduce sub-acute ruminal acidosis (3)
  3. consider adjusting rations to prevent digestive disorders when cattle feed intake is interrupted (due to storm, power outage, machinery breakdown, etc.) (3).

3.3.4 Buller-Steer Syndrome

Buller-steer syndrome is an occasional behavioural problem among feedlot steers, where one steer (buller) is repeatedly mounted by a group of other steers (riders). If not promptly removed from the pen, the buller steer can become exhausted, have reduced feed and water intake, and develop traumatic injuries (3).


Bullers must be promptly removed from their pen.


  1. monitor closely for relapse if bullers are re-introduced to their home pen (26).

3.3.5 Managing Pregnant Heifers in the Feedlot

On occasion, pregnant heifers may end up in the feedlot. The feedlot environment and management is not always well-suited to deal with calving heifers. This may result in significant animal welfare problems for the heifers themselves and the resulting calves. Some feedlot operators may choose, in consultation with their veterinarian, to implement a strategy to terminate unwanted pregnancies in feedlot heifers. Other operators may elect to calve them out or to remove them from their operation.


Consult with your veterinarian to develop a program for managing pregnant heifers in a feedlot.


  1. prevent pregnancy in heifers destined for feedlots. If possible, inform feedlot buyers if there is a chance that heifers have been exposed to a bull
  2. consult a veterinarian if considering spaying to prevent pregnancy in heifers destined for the feedlot. Spaying is a very infrequent practice; however, if done, it should be carried out by a veterinarian using appropriate pain management.

3.4 Safety and Emergencies

Emergencies may arise, and can compromise cattle welfare. Some pre-planning will assist producers in responding to such events in a timely and effective manner.


Have a current emergency response plan to provide feed, water and care for cattle in case of emergencies. Review this plan with all responsible personnel so it can be implemented. Ensure emergency contact numbers are readily accessible and current.

4 Animal Husbandry

Desired Outcome: Cattle experience minimal stress and discomfort, while necessary husbandry tasks are carried out properly, safely and in a timely fashion.

4.1 Handling and Moving Cattle

There is less risk of injury to both animals and handlers when cattle are handled quietly and calmly. Experienced handlers who are aware of cattle behaviour, including herd instinct, flight zone and point of balance, reaction to wind, noise, sudden movements, light contrast or shadows etc. will be able to move cattle more smoothly. This will minimize stress and promote cattle welfare.


Animal handlers must be familiar with cattle behaviour (through training, experience or mentorship) and use quiet handling techniques.

Electric prods must only be used to assist movement of cattle when animal or human safety is at risk or as a last resort when all other humane alternatives have failed and only when cattle have a clear path to move.

Do not use electric prods repeatedly on the same animal.

Do not use electric prods on the genitals, face, udder or anal areas.

Do not use electric prods on calves less than three months of age that can be moved manually.

Willful mistreatment or intentional harm of cattle is unacceptable. This includes but is not limited to: beating an animal; slamming gates on animals; allowing herd dogs to continue pushing cattle with nowhere to move; dragging or pushing cattle with machinery (unless to protect animal or human safety).


  1. adjust your handling techniques and positioning according to the response of the animals and the situation
  2. take a course in cattle handling techniques
  3. use handling tools, such as flags, plastic paddles or rattles, to direct animal movement
  4. evaluate your cattle handling techniques regularly, and make improvements to them as needed (27). Factors to consider include the percentage of cattle:
    • falling (belly or torso touches the ground) during handling
    • stumbling or tripping (knee contacts ground) after being released from the chute
    • requiring the use of electric prods to move
    • running or jumping when leaving the chute
    • vocalizing as a result of restraint.

Increasing levels of the above handling events may indicate a need for changes in lighting, noise levels, equipment, handling methods, or environment.

4.2 Reproduction and Calving Management

The majority of beef cows calve without assistance. However, careful monitoring of calving cows ensures that assistance, when needed, can be provided in a timely fashion. Knowing when and how to provide calving assistance is an important management skill that will protect both the cow and calf in the event of problems.

Calving is divided into three stages of labour:

1st Stage of Labour

  • lasts 3-72 hours
  • pelvic ligaments relax
  • cervical mucous plug released
  • cow is restless and may separate from herd
  • tail elevated
  • sniffs ground, may turn head toward flank
  • may begin straining.

2nd Stage of Labour

  • begins with appearance of “water bag”
  • ends with expulsion of calf
  • should last 0.5-3 hours.

3rd Stage of Labour

  • expulsion of placenta
  • usually expelled by 8-12 hours after birth.

To learn more about how a normal calving should proceed and how to assist the calving cow, including common post-calving complications, see Appendix C.


Calving cattle must be monitored to identify calving difficulties and ensure prompt assistance when required.

Monitor and promptly assist calves and recently-calved cows showing signs of distress.

Caesarean sections must be conducted by a veterinarian or qualified trained personnel using accepted surgical techniques and appropriate local anesthesia and post-operative pain control.

Spaying must be carried out by a veterinarian or qualified trained personnel. Consult your veterinarian on pain control when spaying heifers.


  1. plan a breeding period to assist in implementing other herd management practices, such as vaccination and nutrition programs
  2. select sires carefully on the basis of predicted calving ease or the bull’s birth weight to reduce the likelihood of calving difficulties. Sire selection should also take into account the breed, size, age, and previous calving record of the females
  3. time the first breeding of heifers according to their overall physical development in order to prevent calving difficulties (dystocia) and other health problems. It is recommended that heifers be at least two-thirds of estimated mature body weight at first breeding, and 85% of mature body weight by calving (28)
  4. ensure that cows and heifers are in suitable body condition at the time of calving (suggested targets: heifers 3; cows 2.5)
  5. ensure proper use of equipment designed for pulling calves
  6. observe young calves regularly (preferably daily) to ensure that they are adequately nourished and are healthy.

4.2.1 Colostrum Management

Colostrum has an important influence on the health and welfare of calves. The newborn calf is born with no maternal antibodies and must rely on intake of colostrum to receive passive immunity. The timing of first colostrum is particularly important since calves’ ability to absorb colostrum is substantially reduced six to eight hours after birth. The ability of the calf to defend itself against infectious diseases is directly related to the amount (litres), quality (immunoglobulin level), and timing of colostrum intake. The result of inadequate colostrum intake is a low concentration of circulating immunoglobulin in the blood of the calf, a condition known as “failure of passive transfer”. Calves with failure of passive transfer are 1.6 times more likely to become sick and 2.7 times more likely to die before weaning than calves with adequate serum immunoglobulin levels (29).

Certain cases require special attention, as calves are at a greater risk of not receiving adequate colostrum by suckling. These include: difficult calvings, mis-motherings, calves with hypothermia, or dams with udder conformation that complicates nursing. Assume all abandoned or mis-mothered calves have not suckled.

Signs that a calf may not have received adequate colostrum may include:

  • weak or lethargic
  • lack of suckling reflex
  • cold mouth
  • gaunt appearance
  • dam has a full udder.


Monitor that newborn calves suckle their dams paying special attention to high risk cases.

Administer colostrum or a commercial colostrum substitute to any newborn calf showing signs of not having received it by suckling.


  1. administer two litres (1.8qt) of colostrum to calves that have not suckled within six hours of birth. In cold weather, intervene earlier to supplement calves
  2. learn how to safely use an esophageal (tube) feeder, as it may assist in administering colostrum to calves that will not suckle
  3. obtain supplemental colostrum from any of these sources: milked from the calf’s dam; pooled colostrum from other cows in the herd; commercial colostrum substitute. For biosecurity reasons, avoid using dairy cow colostrum.

4.3 Identification

In Canada, all cattle must be identified by an approved radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag when they leave the farm of origin (or earlier in some provinces).

Nationally, the incidence of branding (hot iron or freeze) has decreased significantly in the last decade. According to the 2010-2011 National Beef Quality Audit (30), fewer than 10% of Canadian cattle were branded, compared to 25% in 1999. However, branding remains a necessary form of permanent identification in some parts of Canada. Brands provide proof of ownership and easy identification of cattle at a distance, and may be required in some situations (e.g. some community pastures, in remote locations, for export, and by some lending institutions). Face branding is not legal in Canada.

Freeze branding is an alternative to hot branding on dark-coloured cattle. However, it is more difficult to do properly.

Scientific evidence indicates branding by any method causes short-term acute pain and stress (31-38). Practical methods of local anesthesia during branding are lacking (3).

Until practical alternatives to branding are available, producers can minimize the impact of branding on the animal by using correct techniques.


All cattle must be identified using an approved ear tag as stipulated by applicable regulations.

When branding is required for export, by policy, or as permanent proof of ownership, it must be performed with the proper equipment, restraint and by personnel with training or sufficient combination of knowledge and experience to minimize pain to the animal.

Do not brand wet cattle due to risk of scalding.


  1. brand size must be appropriate to the size of the animal
  2. avoid re-branding cattle
  3. replace surgical alterations of cattle for identification purposes (such as wattling, ear-splitting) with less invasive practices. Note that these are very rare practices
  4. consult your veterinarian for advice on the availability and feasibility of controlling pain associated with branding
  5. maintain all cattle identification equipment in good working order.

4.4 Disbudding and Dehorning

The horns of beef cattle are routinely removed to decrease the risk of injuries to workers and other animals, and to minimize economic losses due to carcass bruising. The proportion of beef cattle with horns has been steadily decreasing in recent years, as the availability and adoption of polled (hornless) genetics has increased (39). Most common breeds of beef cattle have polled lines available, and the use of homozygous polled genetics eliminates the need for disbudding or dehorning without affecting productivity (3,40-42).

Disbudding refers to the removal of the horn bud before attachment to the skull. The age of horn attachment varies, but occurs at approximately 2-3 months of age. Techniques for removing horn buds include removing the horn buds with a knife, thermal cautery of the horn buds with an electric or butane-powered disbudding iron, or the application of chemical paste to cauterize the horn buds (1). Horn removal after bud attachment is referred to as dehorning. Methods of dehorning involve cutting or sawing the horn close to the skull, sometimes followed by cautery to stop bleeding. Disbudding involves less tissue trauma when horn development is still at the horn bud stage and there is no attachment of horn to the skull of the animal (1). Disbudding and dehorning cause pain and distress for all cattle (3). Your herd veterinarian is a good resource for information on possible methods of pain mitigation during and after horn removal (43).


Dehorning must be performed only by competent personnel using proper, well-maintained tools and accepted techniques.

Seek guidance from your veterinarian on the availability and advisability of pain control for disbudding or dehorning beef cattle.

Disbud calves as early as practically possible, while horn development is still at the horn bud stage (typically 2-3 months).


Use pain control, in consultation with your veterinarian to mitigate pain associated with dehorning calves after horn bud attachment.


  1. use homozygous polled bulls where practical to eliminate the need for disbudding or dehorning (3)
  2. avoid dehorning at the time of weaning to reduce stress (3).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here