Farm animals have historically not been covered by animal welfare legislation. As a result, some practices relating to the treatment of farm animals are considered standard by farmers but may be thought of as cruel or inhumane by animal activists and other people. Such practices include culling, castration, dehorning, branding, and various forms of physical alteration. Culling means the rejection of inferior or undesirable animals. Because it costs money to feed and care for livestock, unwanted farm animals are usually killed. This is particularly true in the hen-breeding business. Male chicks of laying breeds will never lay eggs and are not suitable meat chickens. Millions of them are routinely killed each year when they are only one day old.
Another ancient farming practice is animal castration (removal of the male sex organs). Humans have used castration to control the reproduction of farm animals for centuries. This is particularly true in cattle and hog farming. Only the males with the most desirable characteristics are allowed to remain intact for breeding purposes. This is believed to be beneficial for herd management, because castration reduces aggressive behavior and physical confrontations between males that might damage their meat. In addition, farmers believe that castrated males gain weight better and do not release male hormones that could taint the taste of the meat.
The vast majority of cattle are dehorned to make them easier to handle and to prevent them from accidentally or intentionally injuring each other. In grown cattle the fully developed horns are cut off, but a more common practice is to treat the emerging horn buds of baby calves with a caustic salve to prevent horns from developing.
Branding and other forms of identification, such as ear-notching, are used to distinguish ownership. In the American Old West, most cattle were not fenced in but roamed free across ranches. At roundup time, the distinctive brand burned into each hide allowed cowboys to sort the cattle by owner. Cattle-branding is still practiced today as a precaution against theft and to establish ownership. Also, the ears of cattle and hogs are often given distinctive notches using sharp knives to permit easier identification from a distance.
Other forms of physical alteration widely accepted in animal husbandry include beak trimming of poultry and tail clipping of cattle and swine. Chicken beaks are trimmed to reduce injuries that might result from the animals pecking at each other. Cattle and swine have their tails clipped to prevent them from chewing on each other's tails and to improve cleanliness and reduce disease.
All of these procedures are considered practical and necessary by farm animal producers and considered inhumane by many animal welfarists. Castration, dehorning, branding, beak trimming, tail clipping, and ear notching are widely conducted in the United States without the use of anesthetics or pain medication. Use of a local anesthetic is recommended (but not required) in Canada and is required by law in most cases in the United Kingdom.
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