As unpleasant of a task as it is, removing horns from dairy cattle is vital for animal welfare and human safety. Many different methods are available, including the use of caustic paste at an early age. This method is only effective if properly utilized before the horn has attached to the skull. Best practices suggest applying as soon as the horn bud can be felt, within the first week of life.
Proper application of the paste is vital. Disbudding calves with caustic paste still is a painful procedure, but, when extreme care is taken to ensure the procedure is precisely followed, the calf’s discomfort is lessened. The following tips will help to minimize pain and maximize effectiveness:
- Younger is better. After calves are a few days old, they figure out how to rub and scratch their heads, potentially removing the paste.
- Clip the hair on and around the horn bud before applying paste.
- Consider applying a ring of udder balm or Vaseline around the horn bud to protect the skin outside of the treatment area.
- Don’t use too much paste. Only a small amount applied in a thin, even coating, is needed for a young calf.
- Protect calves from rain for 6-24 hours, until the paste is dry. Rain could cause the paste to run into the calf’s eye, potentially causing blindness.
- Keep calf away from other animals until the paste is dry to prevent injury when calves rub on one another.
- Apply paste immediately prior to feeding calves milk. Nursing the bottle may alleviate some of the discomfort associated with the paste activation.
- Only apply paste once.
- Consult your veterinarian about pain management protocols.
Oregon State University published an excellent bilingual reference guide about using caustic paste to disbud calves. It is accessible here.
Note: This article originally appeared in the UCCE California Dairy Newsletter, Volume 9, Issue 3