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.
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.