BQA tip: When in doubt, change that needle out

Using a dull needle when working cattle can result in pain for the animal and carcass lesions in the packing plant.

October 6, 2016

5 Min Read
BQA tip: When in doubt, change that needle out

A major emphasis in state and national Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs is to reduce or eliminate injection site lesions. One easy to accomplish this is to changed needles often.

“When vaccinating a group of cattle, it’s best to use a new one for each animal, but very few producers do this,” says George Barrington, a veterinarian with Agricultural Animal Clinic Services at Washington State University. “There are some blood-borne diseases that can be transmitted from animal to animal via needles, and our goal is to not do this, by utilizing proper technique and new needles for each animal. But with multiple-dose syringes, this is less feasible; they increase the potential for transmitting diseases—everything from bovine leucosis virus to anaplasmosis,” he says.

When using multi-dose syringes, take time to change needles every time you refill the syringe or after every 10 head. This helps ensure that you are using a sharp needle. A dull needle creates more pain and tissue damage.

“It’s a challenge to get producers to change needles often enough,” says Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension educator and BQA coordinator for Idaho. “People get busy and don’t want to stop.  Figure out a system to keep that 10 head count. If you have a 20 cc syringe and it’s a 2 cc dose, it’s easy to just change needles the next time you fill it. If it’s a different dosage, maybe someone who is keeping records [as the cattle go through the chute] can hand you a new needle when the next 10 animals are done,” she says.

“With some of the new vaccine guns, you attach the whole bottle, so you need to come up with a different way to remember to change your needles because you are using the whole bottle before you do something different with your syringe,” says Williams.

The main thing is to realize the importance of changing needles. “Last year at our cowboy school, I gave a demonstration for ranchers and used a piece of neck hide I picked up from the local custom butcher,” she says. “I gave the ranchers needles and had them ‘inject’ through that hide.”


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She had them rank the amount of force (on a score of 1 to 4) needed to inject that “cow.” This was a good way to objectively evaluate the force it took to do an injection, since this was a controlled situation without the distraction of a moving animal or adrenalin pumping in a rushed situation.

The ranchers could feel the difference the more times they injected that hide. A sharp new needle took a lot less force to penetrate the hide than a needle that had already been used a few times.

“The other thing that was educational was when we flipped the hide over, and they could see everything they were trying to put that needle through,” she says.

Williams also showed the ranchers a series of photos taken at Iowa State University, looking at needles under a high-powered microscope. This showed a new, sharp needle before use, and what it looked like after one use, two uses, etc. up through 16 uses, and how dull it became, along with the dirt and debris it collected.

If you inject through a not-so-clean hide, or the needle bends or gets blunted by accidental contact with the chute, change needles immediately. It doesn’t take much to put a burr on the end of the needle. Some of these burrs are so tiny you can’t see them with the naked eye.

One thing you can do to check a needle to see if it’s still sharp—without a blunted tip—is to run the backside of the needle across the back of your hand. If you feel anything at all, it has a burr on that tip.

“The big challenge is to have some way at the chute to remind yourself or the people helping you to change needles rather than using one too long or trying to straighten one that got slightly bent,” says Williams. When in doubt, change it out.

Other health considerations

“Have cattle adequately restrained before giving injections,” says Williams. “A good set-up helps—if it’s easy to walk down a catwalk to reach the animals and not have to catch each one of them, you take a bigger chance of missed dosing, bending a needle, creating more tissue damage if the animal moves while you are injecting, putting an injection into the wrong location, or getting your hand caught between cattle. It’s usually best to restrain each one individually and do it carefully and accurately, rather than being in a hurry,” says Williams. 

“Make sure that whoever is giving vaccinations knows how to give them and where to give them. As livestock managers, or cattle owners, if someone on the crew is doing it wrong, don’t hesitate to speak up, or give that person a different job—even at the expense of offending a friend.”

The cattle are your livelihood, and you don’t want them inadequately or inappropriately vaccinated, putting them at risk for abscesses or other problems. You don’t want any animal to suffer from an abscess or a swelling on the neck that is so sore she can’t move that shoulder forward to walk—and is lame for two days and can’t go to feed and water.   

We need to use vaccines and antibiotics properly because of our commitment to consumers to provide a safe food product. “We need to be responsible, and considerate, every time we give injections. This enables us to put the best quality product on the consumer’s plate,” says Williams.

More information regarding the Beef Quality Assurance program, including the various programs in specific regions of the country, can be obtained by visiting or by contacting your local Extension office or veterinarian.

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