One salient example of ranching traditions that are in need of an update are surgical mutilations, sanctified by convenience and tradition. Anesthesia is rarely used for these procedures and analgesia, virtually never. (There are no analgesics approved for use in food animals.) This is very ironic, because it is generally acknowledged that the branch of animal agriculture that has most strongly resisted transformation to an industrial approach is the cow-calf component of beef production, most famously instantiated in Western North American extensive ranching.
As devoted to pursuing a way of life as to making a living, Western ranchers strongly adhere to an ethic of animal husbandry. For example, of the approximately 20,000 ranchers all over the US and Canadian West that I have addressed on ethics and animal welfare, well over 90%, in fact, closer to 100%, have spent more money and time on saving a marginal, sick calf than the calf is worth in strictly economic terms. When asked to explain this putatively economically irrational decision, ranchers will invoke their moral obligations to the animals under their aegis.
Yet shortly after the birth of a calf, the same ranchers will brand, dehorn, castrate, and vaccinate these animals with no pain control. How can this be reconciled with the ethic of animal husbandry, both historically and today? Let us focus on branding for an in-depth look at such practices historically, conceptually, and ethically. Branding of cattle by the use of a hot iron to create an indelible mark on the skin by infliction of a third degree burn can be traced back to the Egypt of 3000 BC. Obviously, such burns are extremely painful, and work by destroying melanocytes or pigmentation cells. The purpose of the resulting mark in today's world is twofold: first, it provides proof of ownership, with each ranch employing a unique, centrally registered mark. Second, it allows for easy recognition of one's cows under mixed range conditions, where many different animals with numerous different owners may graze together. In addition, ranchers claim that brands help to prevent rustling, i.e. theft of cattle. With periodic change in cattle ownership, an animal may be branded more than once.
Historically, there were few alternatives for permanently identifying cattle, nor were there methods for controlling the pain of the burn. Over the past 35+ years, I have attempted to persuade Western ranchers that, in today's world, where industrial agriculture has become increasingly less acceptable to society, and a return to husbandry agriculture is sought, they would do well to underscore their commitment to animal welfare by eliminating painful management practices, and marketing beef as the humane meat product.
Note: This article originally appeared as part of Animal Welfare in the Beef Industry in the March 2017 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.