An annual tail audit assesses the tail condition of every cow. It is carried out by a veterinarian or technician who will record any visual tail deviations, palpable traumas or swellings and any shortening, amputations or dockings in separate categories. Reporting details the results alongside the cow IDs.

The first audit shows the historical damage within the herd and creates the baseline, and any following audits are measuring the change. When performed regularly it allows farmers to monitor tail damage and observe any trends. They can assess what has changed from the last audit which can help identify how and why any new damage occurs.

Tail purpose

The tail is made up of vertebrae and is an extension of the spine. There are about 18-20 vertebrae in a cow’s tail. Cows have about 207 bones in their body, so their tail makes up almost 10 percent of those bones.

Tails of different animals have different functions - from balancing and gripping, to attracting mates, to showing happiness and communicating other emotions.

As with other animals, a cow's tail is an important signalling device that has purpose:

  • During oestrus, the tail is slightly lifted. We also use the tailhead for heat detection aids such as tail paint and heat mount detectors.
  • The tail physically lifts during urination and defecation 
  • A common sign that a cow is going to calve is when she raises her tail like a flag and swishes it from side to side.
  • The tail is used to swat flies or other irritations.
  • Tails are lifted when calves and cows play or run.

Tail damage is not only painful, it can also impact how a cow communicates with her world.

Assessing damage

Tail damage is painful for cows and research shows an average of 20% of dairy cattle in New Zealand, approximately one million cows, have abnormal tails. Some of these have been shortened for medical reasons or it was performed before it became illegal, and some have been damaged and some have a dislocation or break. 

Currently, there is limited data on the causes of damaged tails but it has been suggested that they may be caused by mechanical damage or inappropriate handling. In pasture-based cattle when there is a high prevalence of damaged tails, a potential cause that has been highlighted is staff impatience.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) Standardised Tail Scoring System

Possible observations:

D – Deviated
Visible deviations

T – Trauma/swelling
Visible damage to skin/soft tissue, soft swelling, or hard swelling/callus (not deviated)

S – Shortened
Tail has been shortened/amputated/docked (note: in 2018 tail amputation became a veterinarian-only procedure so the reason for any amputation will need to be identified at tail scoring)

N – Normal tail
No visible or palpable lesions

Within WelFarm, the percentage of damaged tails is based on the total of non-normal tails as a portion of the total cows assessed. 

How to improve

After a tail audit if there are any concerns, veterinarians can help develop plans to reduce any damage or injuries that may be occurring whether they are from the infrastructure or the handling techniques. The farm team is the best to identify where the challenges are, and can work with the veterinarian to find solutions to avoid more injuries.

Reporting a potential tail breaking concern within your farm business can seem like a confronting step, but it shows you care about your animals, it protects your reputation, and it’s the right thing to do.

If you suspect you have an issue with tail breaking on farm, call MPI at 0800 00 83 33. An Animal Welfare Inspector will work with you to set up a tail assessment meeting during milking. They will let you know if there’s anything you need to prepare before the visit. Records such as tail audits and stock handling policies and training may be useful.

Investigations are carried out on a case by case basis. MPI may talk to everyone on your farm team. It’s important that MPI can get as much information as possible to make informed decisions to protect your animals. Tail breaking is a breach of the Animal Welfare Act and likely constitutes serious misconduct.

Where to go for further information?