Cattle Welfare FAQs

Browse the list of Frequently Asked Questions created by our team of experts below with regard to dairy and beef cattle welfare.  If you are unable to find or have more specific questions, please Ask an Expert.

Q:  What is castration?

A:  Castration of a bull (male) calf is the process of removal of the testicles by either surgical or non-surgical methods. 

Q:  Why are male calves castrated?

A:  Castration of male cattle is a common management practice throughout the world.  Castration reduces aggression, reduces sexual activity (by lowering testosterone levels), prevents unintentional pregnancies, and decreases the number of animals with a high muscle pH at the time of slaughter. 

Q:  How are calves castrated?

A:  There are two primary ways to castrate calves: (1) surgical removal or (2) elastrator rings.  Surgical removal involves physically removing the testicles by making an incision in the calf’s scrotom (the skin surrounding the testicles).  An experienced operator can complete castration using this method quickly and effectively, with a minimal amount of stress imposed on the calf.  Elastrator rings can be applied above the testicles using a special applicator.  The elastrator ring prohibits blood flow to the testicles, and eventually the testicles will wither and separate from the body. 

Q:  How are beef cattle raised?

A:  Most brood cows (female beef cows) and young calves spend the majority of time on pasture.  At 12 to 16 months of age, most young cattle are transported to a feedlot where they are fed a nutritionally balanced and energy-rich diet for approximately four to six months.  Cattle in a feedlot are generally separated into groups of 100 animals and live in pens that allow 125 to 250 square feet of space per animal.  During this phase, cattle are carefully monitored to ensure optimum health and welfare until they reach a desired body weight for slaughter.

Q:  How are dairy cows housed?

A:  During the last 50 years, housing systems in the dairy industry have changed and currently, tie stalls, freestalls, and dry lots are predominantly used.  According to the 2007 USDA-APHIS National Animal Health Monitoring System report, three of four lactating cows were housed in freestalls (individual beds for cows separated by steel loops with cows having free access to come and go from the bed) or dry lot areas

Heifers and dry cows, the period of time in which they are not lactating, from three weeks prior to calving until calving are typically housed in group pens and are closely monitored by the producer for the onset of giving birth.  When calving appears imminent, cows may be moved to a maternity pen for an individual animal.

The ideal bedding for cows is dry and clean, provides cushion, and minimizes growth of bacteria.  Common bedding sources used in the dairy industry are sand, straw, sawdust or wood products, composted or dry manure, and rubber mats.

Q:  Why do dairy cows produce so much milk?

A:  Genetics, feed, and management affect the amount of milk a cow produces. On average nationally, a cows produces about 60 lb/day of milk or about 7 gallons/day, but some cows at the peak of their lactation may produce 150 lb/day.  Feed intake by the cow controls the amount of each nutrient she receives and the amount of milk she can produce.  Thus, the more feed a cow consumes, the more nutrients she will receive, which will govern the amount of nutrients available for milk production.  An efficiently managed feeding program is very important in order to maximize feed intake.  Dairy cows require: a balanced ration to provide the appropriate nutrients, readily available high quality forages, and access to drinking water at all times.

Q:  What is rBST?

A:  Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is biologically equivalent to the hormone somatotropin (ST), also known as growth hormone, which is produced by the pituitary gland of the animal.  In lactating dairy cows, bovine somatotropin (bST) regulates milk production; healthy, high-producing cows have a greater pituitary secretion of ST than lower producing cows and cows in late lactation.  Modern recombinant DNA technology allows for the bacterial production of ST, and 1994, the FDA approved the use of rBST for increasing production efficiency (milk output per unit of resource input) of lactating dairy cows. 

Q:  What happens to male dairy calves on farms?

A:  Generally, male dairy calves or bull calves are sold during the first week of age and raised for veal or beef production.  A veal calf is raised until it is approximately 20 to 22 weeks of age and may weigh up to 500 lb. 


Q:  How do you locomotion score a dairy cow?

A:  Locomotion scoring is based on the direct observation of cows while they are standing and walking, with emphasis on their back posture.  This husbandry practice may be used to detect the early stages of claw (hoof) disorders and to monitor the prevalence of lameness.

Individual animal observations should be made while they are standing or walking on a flat surface that provides adequate footing for the cows.  It is recommended that cows scoring a 2 or 3 be further examined and their hooves trimmed in order to prevent more serious problems.

Dairy Cattle Locomotion Scores and Descriptions (Sprecher et al., 19971)

Locomotion score

Clinical description




Stands and walks normally with a level back; makes long confident strides.


Mildly lame

Stands with flat back but arches when walks; gait is slightly abnormal.


Moderately lame

Stands and walks with an arched back and short strides with one or more legs; slight sinking dew-claws in limb opposite to the affected limb may be evident.



Arched back standing and walking; favoring one or more limbs but can still bear some weight on them; sinking of the dew-claws is evident in the limb opposite to the affected limb.


Severely lame

Pronounced arching of back; reluctant to move, with almost complete weight transfer off the affected limb.

1Locomotion Scoring of Dairy Cattle: adapted from Sprecher, D.J.; Hostetler, D.E.; Kaneene, J.B. 1997. Theriogenology 47:1178-1187 and contributions from Cook, N.B., University of Wisconsin.


Q:  How do you body condition score a dairy cow?

A:  Body condition scoring provides an objective indication of the amount of fat cover on a dairy animal.  This evaluation is accomplished by assigning a score or number relative to the amount of fat observed on several skeletal parts of the cow.

1 – Emaciated


The individual vertebrae of the spine are prominent. The short ribs are sharp to the touch and give a shelf-like appearance to the loin. The hook and pin bones of the pelvis are well defined. The anal area of the cow is receded displaying a prominent vulva. Considered unfit to travel.

2 – Thin

The short ribs can be felt but are less outstanding. The hook and pin bones are still well-defined, though the area around the anus is less sunken and the vulva is prominent.






3 – Average

The short ribs are palpable with slight pressure. There is no shelf-like appearance to this area. The spine and hook and pin bones are all rounded and smoothed over. The anal area is filled out, and there is no evidence of fat deposits.

4 – Heavy

The short ribs are rounded over with no evidence of a shelf-like appearance and may only be felt with firm palpation. The ridge of the backbone is flattened over the loin and rump areas. The hook bones are smoothed over and the area around the pin bones shows some fat deposits.

5 – Fat

The bone structures of the spine, hook and pin bones, and short ribs are not discernible. There are fat deposits around the tailhead and over ribs. The thighs curve out and the brisket and flanks appear to be very full and heavy.


Q:  Why are calves separated at birth from the cows?

A:  Early removal of the calf from the cow is important for both animals’ welfare.  Reasons for early separation include:  ensuring adequate colostrum intake, reducing incidence of disease, and reducing stress on both the cow and her calf. 

Studies have shown that if calves remain with the cow, they may not ingest enough colostrum, which is vital to their health and welfare.  Hand-feeding the appropriate amount of colostrum to the calf following early separation ensures that the calf is off to the proper start.

Newborn calves also have an immature immune system, and early removal of the calf is supported by studies showing a reduced incidence of disease.  For example, calves left with cows for more than two hours after birth have been observed to have a higher risk of infection than those separated directly after birth; Cryptosporidium infection and respiratory disease may increase the calves’ risk of mortality by six times.

In addition, as the amount of time the cow and calf spend together increases, their response to separation will also increase; the more time spent together, the more severe the response.  Many studies have indicated that calves left with the cow for more than 24 hours will have a faster heart rate for a longer period of time and vocalize more frequently than calves separated from the cow prior to 24 hours, which are indications of a higher stress level. 


Q:  Why are the tails of cows docked?

A:  The practice of tail-docking began in New Zealand in the early 1900s for a number of reasons: to reduce the chance of spreading Leptospirosis through the urine to the milking personnel, enhance udder cleanliness, and to improve the quality of milk through the reduction of mastitis and somatic cell counts.  Because this practice was believed to contribute to worker health and safety, as well as produce a better product for the consumer, tail-docking was established in the United States.  However, over recent years, the practice of tail-docking appears to be on the decline.  Current scientific literature indicates that routine tail-docking does not provide specific benefits to the cow.


Q:  How do you safely transport cows?

A:  For detailed information, please refer to


Q:  Why is dehorning practiced?

A:  Most all dairy animals are born with horns.  Dehorning is a management practice utilized to reduce the risk of injury to the animals within the herd and farm employees.  Dehorning calves at a young age minimizes the potential complications the calf may incur.  A number of long-term welfare advantages result from this husbandry procedure:  dehorned cattle are easier and less dangerous to handle and transport; present a lower risk of interference from dominant animals at feeding time; pose a reduced risk of injury to udders, flanks, and eyes of other cattle; present a lower injury risk for handlers; exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors associated with individual dominance; and may incur fewer financial penalties at the time of sale. 

Before horn buds fully emerge, disbudding can be done with chemical (a caustic paste) means or a hot iron.  After the horn buds are have formed and erupted, physical methods of dehorning include the use of embryotomy wire, guillotine shears, or dehorning knives, saws, spoons, cups, or tubes.

The use of a local anesthesia should be used when dehorning animals.