The preliminary findings of research into tail docking by Alliance Group has found leaving a lamb’s tail longer or intact had no long-term beneficial or detrimental effect on its growth rate.
Alliance Group, which is undertaking the research to verify the productive, economic and welfare effects of tail docking on lambs, has just completed the first year of a three year extensive study.
Tail docking is common practice among New Zealand farmers. It is thought to help reduce dag formation and the risk of fly strike, a major cost to the sheep industry. However, there has been little objective information or research on the benefits, or otherwise, of the practice.
The research, involving a nationwide farmer survey and field trials in Southland, Canterbury and Manawatu, is supported by the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Farming Fund, UK supermarket Sainsbury’s and Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
Early findings suggest that tail length has no effect on time spent on-farm or on productive traits such as carcase weight. However, longer and intact tails increased the level of dag accumulation, and consequently time to crutch.
Previous studies have shown that the accumulation of dags increases the likelihood of fly strike, a serious welfare issue for affected sheep.
However, the link between tail length, dags and fly strikes remain inconclusive at this stage so further data is to be collected in the remaining two years of the study.
The study suggested that leaving the tail longer or intact could have a positive effect on total meat yield. However, this was inconclusive as it was not consistent across breed and sex of the lamb. Further research is to be undertaken to fully understand this aspect.
Murray Behrent, general manager of livestock at Alliance Group, says the first year of the trial has been successful: “While the outcomes only represent preliminary findings, they do provide some useful early confirmation on the effect of tail docking on growth rates and we will be looking forward to the final results in 2015.
“There is currently a lack of scientific information addressing the productive, economic and welfare aspects of docking lamb tails. This situation leaves New Zealand farmers vulnerable to any concerns from international markets in regards to the actual length of tails docked.
“It is therefore important that any welfare issues that concern consumers and have the potential to become barriers in our international markets are addressed so that we can respond on a scientific basis with available trial data.”
The study was important to support the image of New Zealand product in key markets, he says.
Evaluation of the economic benefit and/or the cost to the farmer of leaving the tail longer, or intact, will be part of the remaining two years of the study.
“Once complete, the research should provide suppliers with reliable information in assessing the impact of their tail docking practices.“
During the trials, the lambs were weighed at the time of docking, weaning and slaughter. Dags were also scored at weaning and slaughter while fly strike was recorded before any crutching or spray treatment.
The research looked at four different tail lengths: flush (1cm); short (3-4 cm) commonly used in New Zealand; long (7-10 cm) commonly used in the UK; and intact.
Alliance Group and its research partner AbacusBio have been working with sheep farmers, tailing and shearing contractors as part of the study.
The company will undertake an online survey of sheep farmers in August in an effort to understand the prevalence of the different docking practices and gain an insight into docking decisions made by farmers.
As part of the research, a best practice booklet on tail docking will also be developed and distributed to suppliers in 2015.