There are some jobs on the dairy that most people do not enjoy doing. It has been my observation that when a job task is less than pleasant, it either gets delayed or it gets done poorly.

Dehorning cattle probably falls into this category on most dairies. Furthermore, there have been multiple videos released by animal-rights activist groups that show dehorning done in a gruesome manner. These videos always shed a negative light on our industry. On many dairy farms, there is an opportunity for you to review how you handle this necessary task with your veterinarian.

Goals for dehorning cattle

  • The procedure causes the least amount of pain possible to the animal.
  • The procedure is done in a humane manner.
  • The person doing the procedure is not harmed or put at risk of injury.

The No. 1 way to accomplish the above goals is to perform dehorning at the earliest age possible. For this reason, it is highly recommended that all calves are dehorned/disbudded before six weeks of age.

Paste/caustic dehorning

Applying a caustic substance to the horn bud before the horn grows is a safe and effective practice when done properly.

Caustic paste should be applied ideally when the calf is 24 hours old or less. Shave the hair over the horn bud with clippers and mark the horn bud with a sharpie marker. Ensure that all personnel wear rubber/latex gloves when applying caustic paste to prevent a burn. Apply the paste over the entire marked area.

Calves less than 24 hours old usually do not bother the pasted area. Older calves will often try to rub the paste off with a foot or their head. For this reason, applying it to newborn calves will improve efficacy of the paste method.

Disbudding with a thermal dehorner

There are many brands of dehorners available to use in young calves. Typically, the heat to the unit is provided by either a gas (butane) or electric. The area applied to the horn bud should be narrow. The wide bore dehorners burn a larger area of skin and cause significantly more pain and distress to the animal.

Disbudding calves with this method should be performed only on animals less than six weeks of age — and the earlier the better. This is before the horn bud attaches to the skull. The animal should be properly restrained to minimize risk of injury to the calf or the person performing the procedure. Shave the area over the horn bud, and it is typically seen as a white mark. Apply the hot dehorner to the area until the skin is cut and cauterized around the entire horn. Typically, it only takes a few seconds to accomplish the task.

Pain control

All of these methods are painful and there are safe, effective and economical ways to minimize the pain to the animal. The first method is to apply a local anesthetic to the nerve applying sensation to the horn. Your veterinarian can perform this nerve block for you or discuss ways to apply this to your farm protocols. Animals that are numb typically do not move when the iron is applied.

There is also an oral medication called meloxicam that is a safe and cheap pain pill that can be given to the calf. This medication is not approved for cattle; however, your veterinarian can prescribe an extra-label use of the drug if certain requirements are met.

Polled genetics

There are several dairy breed bull stud centers that now offer polled as a genetic trait. The polled gene is a dominant gene. The beef industry has utilized this genetic trait for years, resulting in many cattle breeds that are born without the genetic marker to produce horns. Of course, in dairy breeds there are multiple characteristics that producers look for in choosing sires to mate with their cows. Often, the polled gene is a low priority. In the future, we may see more use of this gene — and decrease or even eliminate horns from the majority of our dairy cows.

Ask your veterinarian to review your dehorning protocols. My rule-of-thumb for dehorning is that if I cannot do it in front of anybody, I should not be doing it.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services Inc., in Ashland, Ohio.