Dehorning done right

 Resize text         Printer-friendly version of this article Printer-friendly version of this article

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.

Prev 1 2 Next All

Comments (8) Leave a comment 

e-Mail (required)


characters left

Annie Link    
MI  |  January, 07, 2013 at 09:37 PM

After trying several different methods and ages for dehorning with no improvement, we recently tried the paste again and after training all employees by watching the online videos we are very happy (and so are the calves) with the results of the paste. We apply it immediately after the colostrum feeding and the calves show almost no discomfort.

John M.    
Ohio  |  January, 08, 2013 at 09:26 AM

In the article when using a burning method they forgot to mention that you should always use a pain blocker first.

Michigan  |  January, 09, 2013 at 02:34 PM

Blocking or numbing the area first along with pain pills in the morning before dehorning makes it easier for the person doing the dehorning and easier on the calf as well. We also give the pills the following day. Our calves never skip a beat!

pa  |  January, 09, 2013 at 02:53 PM

Newborns protocol that works for us... 1. Dip Navel. 2 Dry off if calf isn't dry. 3. 1 gallon colostrum. 4. First Defense or other oral antibody. 5. Tag. 6. Clip horn bud and apply paste (takes less than 3 min.). 7. Redip Navel and put coat on if cold. 8. Fill out record book. It is so much quicker and easier to dehorn as part of newborn protocol. They do not rub it off and only flicker ears and shake head for no more than 2 hours. Everything is new stimuli at this early age, so it is not a traumatic event and does not require major restraint.

usa  |  January, 09, 2013 at 04:25 PM

We dehorn as soon as possible. Navel treatment, colostrum, oral vaccines, tag and dehorn. Sometimes calves are still wet. 99.9% success rate. Easier to handle calves with less stress all around.

Johnny Stansell    
Abilene, Tx  |  January, 14, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Lots of very good polled bulls out there right now. Polled is a dominant gene. Look for the best homozygous polled bulls and all your calves will be polled. is a good site for info.

Joan Cooper    
Knoxville, TN  |  February, 19, 2013 at 10:23 AM

Thank you, vet Gingrich, for mentioning the increasing number of bulls that transmit the polled gene and your hard-to-misinterpret rule-of-thumb for dehorning: ”If I cannot do it in front of anybody, I should not be doing it.” It is notable that one European dairy breed has made excellent progress in selecting for polled. The Norwegian Red breed (NRF) has gradually increased polled frequency in the population (currently >200,000 purebreds in Norway) with about 50% of calves born polled, plus many outstanding NRF sires have one or two copies of the polled gene. Some bulls are homozygous polled (2 copies of polled gene) and will guarantee polled calves. Dairy producers in 20+ countries are crossing with Norwegian Red to get polled animals as well as to get very productive, fertile and healthy cows. See for more information.

John M.    
Ohio  |  February, 20, 2013 at 08:52 AM

Good call

Ag-Bag MX1012 Commercial Silage Bagger

"The Ag-Bag MX1012 Commercial Silage Bagger is an ideal engine driven mid-size bagger, designed to serve the 150 to 750 ... Read More

View all Products in this segment

View All Buyers Guides

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight