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.
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.