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Are There Better Ways to Dehorn Dairy Calves?

Are There Better Ways to Dehorn Dairy Calves?
Calves are being dehorned at younger ages today.

By Liz Binversie

Over time we developed and adopted better ways to do animal procedures to improve performance and reduce costs.  Currently not only do we try to reduce costs and improve efficiency, but we also try to improve animal welfare by reducing pain and discomfort.  Trying new things and researching their effects bring us to the old FFA creed that says, "Better Days through Better Ways." How can we apply this principle to dehorning or debudding cattle and calves?

Are There Better Ways to Dehorn Dairy Calves?

Industry standards for dehorning have changed during our lifetime. Some of us well remember the cattle round up with a chute and veterinarian to dehorn the dairy heifers on the farm. The noise level increased as we corralled and got heifers in the chute. Blood squirted and veins got pulled, and powder was applied to stop the bleeding.  Cattle vocalized, tails switched and heifers lounged from the chute. Afterwards cattle were checked for infection and treated as needed. As the years passed, electric dehorners and propane Budex equipment appeared and caustic paste evolved.  Now we remove the horn bud earlier than ever before.

Some natural physiology can help us as we reduce age of horn / bud removal on dairy cattle.

•The horn bud does not attach to the skull on average until 8 weeks of life. Thus, if we remove the horn bud before attachment we need a less damaging procedure with less pain associated.

•The smaller the wound on the calf the faster it will heal, which can be important in the summer when flies are active

•The size of the young calves helps reduce injury to calf and dairy farm worker, as it is easier to restrain a 120 pound calf than one several hundred pounds  heavier. Thus we have less injury to animal and worker.

Cortisol response
Cortisol is a hormone that increases in response to stress and pain.  As you can see from the graph to the left, the use of less invasive procedures (dehorning prior to 8 weeks), and lidocaine can reduce this cortisol response.  The less stressful procedures are associated with improved grain intake, lower respiratory rates, and improved average daily gain. Providing meloxicam at the time of dehorning further controls pain by reducing the increase in cortisol that starts between 3 and 4 hours post-dehorning when the lidocaine begins to wear off.  Meloxicam (1mg/kg) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that you can obtain from your veterinarian as an off-label use. Calves that receive meloxicam have lower respiratory and heart rates post dehorning, a reduced cortisol response, and are less sensitive to pain around the horn bud

As we move to younger ages to dehorn calves, there are some procedural changes that help increase effectiveness and reduce chance of injury. Hair removal seems to improve the process of locating the horn bud and increases the effectiveness of the caustic paste. Not only does it get applied to the right area, it increases the contact to the bud and increases the burning that kills the bud. Improvements may be noted in the burning if the area has hair removed as well. The ability to apply the iron and have a complete burn thus reduces scars or a need to redo the process later.

Currently Amy Stanton and some local Extension agents are conducting a survey to determine farmer and agricultural professional's thoughts and feelings on typical practices and procedures that the agricultural community employs to debud dairy calves. Aside from answering questions on training, experience and customary practices, participants view three videos and express or rate effectiveness of practice, pain associated and need for analgesic or anesthesia.  If your group or organization is interested in participating in the survey, contact your local extension agent or Liz Binversie at ([email protected], or 920-391-4612).  Results will be available in the next year.

Binversie is the Brown County Extension agriculture agent. Amy Stanton, Extension dairy cattle well-being specialist, and Zen Miller, Outagamie County Extension dairy and livestock agent, contributed to this article.

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