Aim: To assess the effect of analgesia at disbudding on weight gain and milk intake of dairy calves.
Methods: Four disbudding protocols were used on 3- to 6-week-old Friesian-Jersey calves. Farm staff disbudded 101 calves without sedation or local analgesia, of which 51 received 20 mg meloxicam S/C. Veterinary staff disbudded 101 calves with sedation and local analgesia, of which 51 also received 20 mg meloxicam S/C. Calves were weighed before disbudding, 15 and 30 days later, and individual milk consumption was recorded for 11 days. Daily weight gain and milk consumption were analysed using mixed models and ANOVA.
Results: From disbudding (Day 0) to Day 15 farmer-disbudded calves receiving meloxicam grew faster (0.65 kg/day) than calves without meloxicam (0.55 kg/day; p=0.011), but an interaction between operator and meloxicam treatment (p=0.056) meant that meloxicam treatment did not increase growth rates in veterinary-disbudded calves (0.63 vs. 0.64 kg/day; p=0.872). From Days 16-30 there was no significant effect of meloxicam on growth rate, but veterinarian-disbudded calves grew faster (0.76 kg/day) than farmer-disbudded calves (0.66 kg/day; p=0.034). Overall, for the first 30 days after disbudding, if meloxicam was not used', veterinarian-disbudded calves grew faster than farmer-disbudded calves (p=0.002). However if meloxicam was used at disbudding there was no difference in growth rate between veterinarian- and farmer-disbudded calves (p=0.878). Mean cumulative milk consumption for the 11 days after disbudding was greater for calves disbudded by veterinary staff than by farm staff (p<0.001), but there was no effect of meloxicam treatment (p=0.618) and no interaction with operator (p=0.86) on cumulative milk consumption.
Conclusions: Three to 6-week-old dairy calves disbudded by farm staff with no analgesia grew significantly slower over the next 15 days than farmer-disbudded calves given meloxicam, and slower over the next 30 days than veterinarian-disbudded calves given xylazine and lignocaine. However addition of meloxicam to the latter protocol had no effect on growth rate. Milk intake was significantly higher for 11 days for veterinarian- compared with farmer-disbudded calves.
Clinical relevance: This study adds to the evidence that analgesia during disbudding is beneficial for calf productivity as well as calf welfare.
Keywords: Disbudding; analgesia; daily weight gain; dairy calves; meloxicam; milk consumption.