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Options to deal with cow tail switches

Gerard Cramer

The recent change in the National Dairy FARM program by National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) of moving forward the deadline to end tail docking to January 2017 has created a renewed interest in approaches to manage cow tail switches. Trimming tail switches is an effective mechanism to keep cows clean and workers safe. In this article we will not delve into the specifics of the decision by NMPF as it is unlikely this deadline will be changed and similar recommendations to stop tail docking are being made for other animals such as dogs.

trimming tools

Figure 1. Alternatives to trim the tail switch

shears/scissors option

Figure 2. Shears/scissors

tail trimmer

Figure 3. TailWell®2 tail trimmer

This article will focus on helping the industry move forward and evaluate alternatives. In freestall barns, there are currently three viable alternatives to trim the tail switch (Figure 1):

  1. Shears/scissors
  2. Corded or battery operated clippers
  3. TailWell® tool that attaches to a cordless drill

In tie-stall barns, an additional option exists where part of the switch is tied to an elastic string. This elastic string is then tied to a line that is suspended from the ceiling. This allows the cow limited freedom to move her tail but when properly tied suspends the switch out of the gutter.

The first and cheapest option to trim tail switches is to use either scissors or sheep shearing shears. The advantage of shears over scissors is that they can be easily sharpened. To properly use the shears/scissors, care has to be taken when cutting the hair to ensure the bottom of the tail is not cut. A disadvantage of the shears/scissors option is that it typically only removes the bottom hairs (Figure 2) of the switch and the longer hairs at the side of the tail can still get soiled and get people or cows dirty.

The second option consists of using regular clippers. It is a viable option if the switch trimming is done in a standard location and one does not have to drag an extension cord around the barn. Cordless clippers solve this problem but battery life can become an issue. Another disadvantage of the clippers is that the dirt on the tail dulls the clipper blades relatively quickly and multiple blades will need to be stocked if the whole herd is to be done at one time. The major advantage of using clippers is that you can remove more hair from the side of the tail therefore reducing the frequency that tails need to be trimmed.

The third and more recent option to trim the tail switch is a commercially available tool called the TailWell®2 tail trimmer. This tool was invented in New Zealand and consists of a circular clipper blade attached to a cordless drill. Once you have established the proper technique, this is probably the easiest and most effective way to trim the switch. Similar to the clipper, it removes hair from the side of the tail too (Figure 3). As a disadvantage, the tool is more expensive than the other methods and requires regular maintenance. The trimmer can be hand-sharpened on-farm and the manufacturer recommends sharpening after about 2000 tails. Similar to the regular clippers, this tool removes a lot more hair than the scissors and will reduce tail trimming frequency.

comparison of trimming tools

Figure 4. Untrimmed vs. trimmed tail switches

In summary, there are several options that are available for the industry to move forward from tail docking. This article has outlined several alternatives and a video example of these alternatives can be found at dairyKNOW. How frequently these methods will need to be used is somewhat farm dependent. Figures 4 shows side by side untrimmed vs. trimmed tail switches for easy comparison and the difference in the amount of hair removed by the methods. If one choses a method that removes the hair from the side of the tail, it is likely switch trimming will only need to be done two to three times per year.

January 2016

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