Dehorning Calves: Sedation vs. Pain Management

( Taylor Leach )

The dairy industry needs to be proactive about humane animal care like pain management, according to Sandy Stuttgen, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension Agriculture Educator. If not, “our on-farm practices will be dictated to us,” she said. 

As county Extension educators, Stuttgen and her colleague Sarah Mills-Lloyd also both happen to be licensed veterinarians. Stuttgen works as the agriculture educator for Taylor County. Prior to her departure from Extension in 2019, Mills-Lloyd worked for Oconto County. Together they discussed best management practices for pain management in cattle in this presentation at the Wisconsin Dairy and Beef Well Being Conference. Their comments were based on recommendations by the American Veterinary Medical Association, National Milk Producers Federation; American Association of Bovine Practitioners; and the national Beef Quality Assurance program.

“Cattle are a prey species, so they are naturally inclined to mask their pain so as not to look vulnerable,” said Stuttgen. Still, she noted, dehorning pain is real, as evidenced by a depressed demeanor, head tilt, and calves going off feed. 

Mills-Lloyd advised disbudding or dehorning calves prior to 6 weeks of age, before the horn bud attaches to the skull bone. Dehorning at older ages is a more invasive procedure that puts animals at greater risk of blood loss, sinusitis and infection. 

She noted the four most common methods of dehorning are with a hot iron; scoop dehorner; caustic paste; or elastic bands. “None of these procedures are pain-free,” advised Mills-Lloyd.

To begin the dehorning process, both recommended:

  1. Restrain the animal with a halter
  2. Clip the hair around the horn or horn bud
  3. Optionally, the animal may be sedated

Stuttgen pointed out that while sedation calms the animal and makes the dehorning process easier for human handlers, it does not remove pain. “When the sedation wears off, the animal still will feel pain,” she said.

A lidocaine block administered halfway between the eye and the horn can help prevent pain during the procedure. In older animals, lidocaine also should be administered around the base of the horn. Lidocaine relief is short-lived, and pain management should be extended using a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Work with your herd veterinarian on selecting an NSAID, and be sure to follow prescribed withdrawal times. “Dehorning and accompanying pain management should be performed under the direction of your herd veterinarian, and all drugs must be used within a valid Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship,” advised Stuttgen.

Finally, the veterinarians expressed optimism that the U.S. dairy industry is beginning to embrace polled genetics, which eventually could negate the need to prevent dehorning altogether. “For years, matings were based on ‘milk over polledness,’” noted Stuttgen. “We have now learned that the polled trait is not linked to milk production. Because the polled gene is dominant, eventually you can achieve a completely polled herd.”

The proposed standards in the soon-to-be-updated Farmer's Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) specifically address pain mitigation for disbudding. The proposed FARM version 4.0, which is expected to go in place in January 2020, states: “Pain mitigation for disbudding is provided in accordance to the signed protocol by the Veterinarian of Record.” Thus the practice would be mandatory for all dairy farms that sell milk to an NMPF cooperative.

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