A wide range of behavioral and physiological responses occur in calves that are dehorned. A recent Texas Tech University study examined these responses in three-month-old Holstein calves undergoing dehorning or castration or both, and the effectiveness of pain relief in reducing these responses. The results provide a fuller picture of observable and biological responses to two very common management practices, with implications for both the beef and dairy industry.
We should note first of all that, at three months of age, the calves in this study were well beyond the point where more humane disbudding methods such as caustic paste could be performed. Horn buds attach to the skull by eight weeks, which is one reason why many industry organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommend dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.” The dairy calves in this study were dehorned mechanically using a Barnes or “Gouger” dehorner.
Second, pain relief was administered just prior to the procedure in the form of a local anesthetic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is consistent with the AVMA’s updated welfare policy on dehorning, which recommends such pain relief methods for dehorning procedures other than early-age disbudding.
The study results show:
- Calves that were dehorned spent more time head shaking and ear flicking than control animals -- typical behaviors associated with dehorning pain.
- Dehorned animals showed a rise in concentrations of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, as well as other physiological responses to inflammation.
- Calves that were dehorned and not given pain relief spent less time eating than control calves, and lost roughly one percent of their body weight in the 24 hour time period following the procedure.
- In contract, calves that received pain relief in the form of an anesthetic and analgesic immediately prior to dehorning gained approximately 1.4 percent of their bodyweight in the 24 hours after the procedure – the same amount of weight gained by control calves over the same time period.
Although the differences in weight gain between the calf groups were not statistically significant, the findings suggest that the use of both local anesthesia and analgesia prior to dehorning can minimize “detrimental consequences” on calf performance and therefore economic losses. We took a look at some of the other economic benefits of pain relief for dehorning in a blog post last fall.
Such losses can be further minimized by disbudding at the youngest age possible, ideally at or within a few days of birth, preferably with a non-invasive method like caustic paste. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College has noted that it is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.
Early disbudding and pain relief aren’t topics typically raised in discussions over improving economics in the beef and dairy industry – but maybe it’s time they were.
Does early disbudding and pain relief make economic sense for your operation?
When Is the Best Age To Dehorn?
Posted by Dave Lucas
The American Veterinary Medical Association has long recommended that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.” Most researchers and producer groups recommend that dehorning take place prior to eight weeks of age, the stage at which horn buds attach to the skull. However, a growing number of industry influencers are arguing that the procedure be performed even earlier in life.
Dehorning is now recommended at or within a few days of birth in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where only about a third of dairy calves and less than one-fourth of beef calves are disbudded by eight weeks of age.
Why dehorn at birth, or shortly thereafter? First and most important, it’s easier on the calves. At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and very small. Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an extension veterinarian at Oregon State University, recommends applying dehorning paste to calves under two days of age, immediately prior to feeding colostrum, to help reduce signs of pain. As she writes in her blog post from April 2011: “While the calves concentrate on nursing from the bottle, the paste will be working. Human doctors do the same thing with babies – distract them by making them nurse when they have to do procedures such as needle pricks to get blood samples.”
Another reason is economics. At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and very small, so disbudding is far less invasive. Calves disbudded within a few days of birth usually recover quickly and are less likely to experience infections, blood loss or other costly complications associated with mechanical dehorning used on older calves.
Dehorning at birth is also obviously easier on the crew, since there’s no need for squeeze chutes or even moderate restraint. Calves at CY Heifer Farm in Elba, NY, are routinely dehorned at three and four days of age. Farm manager and guest blogger Jeanne Wormuth tells us when she applies dehorning paste to sleepy, just-fed dairy calves, many don’t react at all.
Finally, early-age disbudding is good animal welfare. As Dr. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College says, “It is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.” A University of Guelph experiment showed that calves under four weeks of age exhibited less of a pain response to hot-iron dehorning than older calves.
So why don’t more producers dehorn at birth or shortly thereafter? Some may not believe dehorning at this age is effective. Others many find it too difficult to locate the tiny horn buds. In the case of beef producers, they may simply not be able to get their hands on the calf right away. However, in most cases, dehorning at a later age is just the way it’s always been done. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?
Producers should fix it because the world is watching. As the entire food system moves toward greater transparency, every animal management practice, from handling to housing, is being examined and questioned. If these practices are not being performed in the most humane manner possible, consumers will want to know why.
The American Veterinary Medical Association should consider revising its recommendation to specify dehorning be performed “at or within a few days of birth.” The dairy industry should also consider proactively taking control of this issue, the way it has with tail-docking, and reshape it to minimize the impact of change on producers. Dehorning at or near birth is clearly the most humane way to dehorn calves, and the standard to which we should now aspire.
Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 8, 2011. http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/dehorning_cattle_bgnd.asp
American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Policy. Castration and Dehorning of Cattle. Approved April 2008.
Faries, Floron C., Jr. Immunizing Beef Calves: A Preconditioning Immunization Concept. 2000. AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.
Hopkins, Fred M., et al. University of Tennessee. Cattle Preconditioning: Dehorning Calves. July 9, 2009.
Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, Curresnt Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.
USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.
Pasture Weaning Cuts Stress, say University of Missouri Researchers. Beef, May 1, 2001.
Fulwider, W.K., et al. Survey of Dairy Management Practices on 113 North Central and Northeastern United States Dairies. J. Dairy Sci. 2008. 91:1686-1692.
Undercover video is the latest tactic used by animal rights activist groups to pressure farmers into abandoning common management practices. One major dairy product manufacturer is being targeted for accepting milk from farms where cows are dehorned. If your operation is among the majority that practices dehorning, be prepared for a call or visit from the media seeking comment on this issue. A calm, measured response can go a long way to help consumers see beyond the sensationalism, and paint a much more realistic portrait of animal agriculture. These points can also be used in farm social media to connect directly with consumers.
Key points to keep in mind when talking about dehorning:
Dehorning is necessary for human and animal safety.
Cow horns are dangerous for dogs, horses, other cows and all animals and people on a farm.
Many calves are dehorned early in life, before horn buds have a chance to attach to the skull. This procedure is called “disbudding.”
Early-age disbudding is preferred to minimize discomfort.
For older animals, dairy farmers and veterinarians work together to ensure horns are removed safely and humanely.
Dairy farmers are highly motivated to take very good care of their cows. All dairy farmers work regularly with veterinarians to keep their cows healthy.
Some cattle are bred hornless, but this is not practical for dairy cattle. It takes many generations (decades) to ensure cows inherit the proper traits, and may adversely affect the animals’ overall health.
Anyone can be victimized by an undercover video campaign. This excellent article posted on Dairy Herd Network, Are you ready for the cameras?, offers practical suggestions for dealing with the aftermath of a public relations crisis, including lining up resources and support to help your operation survive. It also offers great advice for any producer ready to step up and proactively present a more balanced viewpoint on animal agriculture.
We live in a society where 98% of people no longer have any direct ties to animal agriculture. Even sights as common as a prolapsed uterus or a case of scours can be horrifying for people who’ve never set foot on working farm. It’s no wonder certain typical animal management practices are sometimes viewed with confusion or even outrage. Dehorning in particular seems to elicit two common responses in non-ag audiences:
1. Dehorning is unnecessary.
2. Dehorning is cruel.
Is dehorning unnecessary? Those of us who make a living as dairy or beef producers know for a fact dehorning is absolutely essential for the safety of every cow, horse, dog and human on that farm. But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which represents 80,000 veterinarians, has to say about the Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle:
Dehorned cattle require less feeding trough space; are easier and less dangerous to handle and transport; present a lower risk of interference from dominant animals at feeding time; pose a reduced risk of injury to udders, flanks, and eyes of other cattle; present a lower injury risk for handlers, horses, and dogs; exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors associated with individual dominance; and may incur fewer financial penalties on sale.
Some argue dehorning is unnecessary because cattle can be bred polled, or naturally hornless. That’s true to a point (no pun intended). However, the vast majority of dairy cattle in the United States, and a significant number of beef cattle, are not polled. Breeding for this trait doesn’t happen overnight, and simply demanding producers buy and raise only polled cattle is unrealistic. For most dairy producers, dehorning remains an essential management practice for human and animal safety.
Is dehorning cruel? Some animal activist organizations would certainly have you think so, characterizing the practice as “mutilation” and claiming it involves cutting horns out of the animal’s skull. First, dehorning does not necessarily involve cutting horns out of the animal’s skull since horn buds don’t even attach to the skull until the eighth week of life. There’s plenty of time during those eight weeks for producers to disbud with a hot-iron or dehorning paste, neither of which involve any kind of cutting. Second, like any animal management practice, dehorning has the potential to be abusive in the hands of an untrained or insensitive employee. It’s up to farm owners and managers to take a zero-tolerance policy against animal abuse of any kind.
Could our industry do a better job of improving animal welfare? Yes, we could -- and we are, as evidenced by initiatives like the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Gold Standards III which emphasizes humane handling and other welfare considerations.
Could we employ more humane dehorning methods? Certainly. Pain relief should be a routine part of any invasive procedure, which should be performed at the earliest age possible. Research has shown that early-age disbudding with caustic paste is less painful than hot-iron dehorning, even when a local anesthetic is used.
As we move toward greater transparency in the food animal system, producers will be increasingly called upon to answer questions about their management practices – and correct misconceptions. If welfare is a priority in your operation, you can feel free to answer tough questions with confidence.
In its most recent issue of Ag Animal Health, Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension cites the four-step pain management process recommended for dehorning by Dr. Todd Duffield of Ontario Veterinary College:
1. Develop a dehorning protocol
2. Use a Lidocaine nerve block
3. Dehorn calves less than four weeks of age
4. Use an approved NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for calves over four months of age
We’ve cited Dr. Duffield’s AABP Proceedings article, Current Data On Dehorning Calves, in several blogs, including Dehorning and Analgesia and Is Paste Disbudding Really More Humane? This protocol is certainly consistent with the new Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards which call for disbudding calves under one month of age with “cautery” methods and local anesthesia. For older calves, the DCHA recommends using both local anesthesia and sedation.
The editor of Ag Animal Health recommends a fifth step to Dr. Duffield’s protocol: Training and retraining individuals conducting dehorning procedures. This is so common-sense, it almost seems ludicrous to include it in a formal protocol. However, many of us in the business have witnessed or heard about dehorning mishaps that result in injuries to crew members. You may recall Jeanne Wormuth’s guest blog last year about the employee who accidentally burned herself with a butane dehorner, prompting the calf-growing operation to switch to caustic paste.
However, even caustic paste needs to be handled with care. Dehorning.com offers two important resources to help train crew members in dehorning paste application. Feel free to use one or both in your own operation:
Do you think five steps in a dehorning protocol is too few? Too many? Or just right?
Caustic paste disbudding
can be effectively performed on dairy calves up to the point where the horn buds attach to the skull, around eight weeks of age. Practically speaking, however, the procedure really should be performed much sooner, within a few days of birth, for reasons that benefit both the operation and the animal.
At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and quite small. Only a very small amount of dehorning paste applied to this area – about the size of U.S. nickel – is needed to effectively destroy horn-producing tissue. Three- and four-day old calves are docile and easy to handle (especially after a good meal), with no need for squeeze chutes or much restraint beyond a firm grasp. One of our guest bloggers, Jeanne Wormuth
, tells us when she applies dehorning paste to sleepy, just-fed dairy calves, many don’t react at all.
Unlike older calves, which may need up to two weeks to return to their pre-dehorning weight,1
calves disbudded within a few days of birth usually recover quickly. They’re also less likely to experience infections, blood loss or other complications associated with mechanical dehorning.
Most important, early-age disbudding makes sense from an animal welfare perspective. As Dr. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College
says, “It is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.”2
A University of Guelph experiment showed that calves under four weeks of age exhibited less of a pain response to hot-iron dehorning than older calves.2
Unfortunately, cattle producers in the United States tend to dehorn at a much later age when the procedure is more invasive and the risks of complications higher. Only about a third of dairy calves3
and less than one-fourth of beef calves4
are disbudded by eight weeks of age. Compare this to dehorning practices in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other countries where caustic paste is typically applied within a few days of birth.5Are you using caustic paste within the first week of age? Why or why not? Footnotes
- Fred Hopkins, et al. Cattle Preconditioning: Dehorning Calves. Cattle Network. 7/09/2009. www.cattlenetwork.com
- Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, Current Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.
- Fulwider, W.K., et al. Survey of Dairy Management Practices on 113 North Central and Northeastern United States Dairies. J. Dairy Sci. 2008. 91:1686-1692.
- USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.
- Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 8, 2011. http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/dehorning_cattle_bgnd.asp
More than 10 years ago, Dr. Joseph Stookey, a professor from the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine wrote a very good article addressing the issue of dehorning from an animal welfare perspective. This was before the era of back-to-back national food recalls, hidden-camera farm exposes, and an unprecedented surge of activism in animal welfare and food safety. We thought it might be worth revisiting this article today to see how the industry has changed over the intervening decade – and how it hasn’t.
Originally published in Beef Magazine
and other industry publications, How Are You Dehorning Your Cattle?
covered a wide range of dehorning topics, from the use of horns in establishing dominance and theories about the purpose of horns on female cattle, to performance differences between horned and polled animals. Not surprisingly, Dr. Stookey strongly advocated the use of polled genetics as the most “welfare friendly” dehorning method. He also acknowledged that although good polled bulls were readily available to beef producers, this was not the case for dairymen. Dairy producers, he suggested, should dehorn “within the first week of life and which procedure is used makes little difference.” He also asserted that the level of pain experienced based on the animal’s age “is still not known.”
Dr. Stookey was certainly ahead of his time in recommending early-age disbudding from an animal welfare perspective. And although the use of polled genetics has increased in the dairy industry, the availability of quality polled dairy bulls remains very limited. But over the last decade, research has shown that when it comes dehorning and pain, the right procedure – and the age of the animal -- does indeed make a difference.
- A University of British Colombia study published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2005 showed that caustic paste dehorning with a sedative elicited less of a pain response in Holstein calves than hot-iron dehorning with both a sedative and a local anesthetic.1 According to researchers, “These results indicate that caustic paste dehorning with xylazine sedation might be a more humane, simpler, and less invasive procedure than hot-iron dehorning with sedation and local anesthesia.”
What do you think of Dr. Stookey’s article?Footnotes
- Experiments conducted at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College and published in the AABP Proceedings in 2008 showed that hot-iron dehorning was less painful in younger calves (< 4 weeks) than older calves (6-10 weeks).2
- Vickers, K.J. et al. Calf Response to Caustic Paste and Hot-Iron Dehorning Using Sedation With and Without Local Anesthetic. April 2005. J. Dairy Sci. 88:1454-1459.
- Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.
Mercy For Animals
(MFA) has released another undercover video, this one documenting animal cruelty by some workers at the E6 Cattle Company
, a calf raising operation in Hart, TX. The abuses have been rightly condemned by company owners, animal welfare activists, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which called the beatings “barbaric, inhumane and unacceptable
.” The workers were fired.
The video also depicts workers burning horn buds off calves with a hot-iron and, in one scene, a branding iron.
The acts of cruelty shown are truly repugnant and definitely not typical of responsible calf raising facilities or any livestock operation for that matter. But the dehorning procedures depicted are standard management practices on many farms, and are not, in themselves, gratuitously cruel. By including these scenes in its compilation of abuses, MFA has, unfortunately, lumped dehorning into the same “horrifying” category as euthanizing calves with hammers and pickaxes.
Dehorning is a necessary management practice that greatly reduces the risk of injury to humans, horses, dogs and, of course, calves themselves (udders, flanks and eyes are particularly susceptible to gouging). The AVMA’s Animal Welfare Policy
recommends that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable”, while noted animal welfare activist Dr. Temple Grandin
has said, “There is no excuse for not dehorning very young calves.”
The majority of dairy producers and many beef producers practice hot-iron disbudding
, which is certainly preferable to dehorning at later stages with more invasive methods. That said, hot-iron dehorning is painful, and producers should use analgesia and/or sedation whenever possible.
A more humane alternative is caustic paste disbudding
, which has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron dehorning. The non-sedated, non-medicated calf in this video, for example, barely reacts when dehorning paste is applied.
Do you think dehorning should have been included in Mercy For Animal’s undercover video of abuses at E6 Cattle Company?
Mercy For Animals Investigation Into a Texan Calf Farm. April 20, 2011. http://vegangstaz.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/mercy-for-animals-investigation-into-a-texan-calf-farm/
Veterinary Practice News. “Abuse of Calves is ‘Unacceptable’, AVMA Says.” April 20, 2011. http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/vet-breaking-news/2011/04/20/undercover-video-showing-abuse-of-calves-is-unacceptable-avma-says.aspx
Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 8, 2011. http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/dehorning_cattle_bgnd.asp
Temple Grandin. Bruise Levels on Fed and Non-Fed Cattle. Proceedings Livestock Conservation Institute. April 5-7, 1995. http://www.grandin.com/references/LCIbruise.html
Vickers, K.J., et al. Calf Response to Caustic Paste and Hot-Iron Dehorning Using Sedation With and Without Local Anesthetic. J. Dairy Sci. 88: 1454-1459, 2005.
Last November, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers
, Animal Health and Welfare Directorate released a study on alternatives to cattle dehorning in the European Union
. It provides a fascinating glimpse into food animal management practices overseas, highlighting some surprising similarities and differences between operations in Europe and here in the U.S.
Nearly 100 dairy and beef farmers in Italy, Germany and France were interviewed about their practices and attitudes toward dehorning. Compared to U.S. producers, farmers in Europe were slightly less likely to dehorn dairy cattle (approximately 80 percent hornless), and much less likely to dehorn beef cattle (less than 40 percent hornless).1 Most E.U. farmers prefer disbudding over dehorning.
Hot-iron disbudding is the most used method, however, the use of caustic paste
appears more frequent in the South and the Eastern member states. Surprisingly, most beef farmers in Europe prefer hot-iron disbudding, in contrast to U.S. beef producers, who mostly use mechanical methods. Reasons cited for disbudding as opposed to dehorning include ease for the operator and less pain and stress on calves.1
These findings are consistent with dehorning practices in other countries, including Canada, where the CVMA
recommends disbudding in the first week of life, and New Zealand and Australia, where authorities recommend disbudding at the youngest age possible.2
Raising polled animals
is an alternative explored in the study. Currently, the prevalence of polled cattle in Europe is very low, less than one percent for dairy and less than four percent for beef.1
European farmers have indicate they may be interested in polled bulls with high genetic merit, and the development of breeding programs for Holstein and Charolais cattle are underway. Some negative traits have appeared in German Fleckvieh breeding programs, and more research is needed to determine if these are linked to the polled gene. What do you find most and least surprising about dehorning practices in Europe?Footnotes
- Cattle Dehorning and Alternatives in the EU. The CattleSite.com. November 2010. www.thecattlesite.com/articles/2540/cattle-dehorning-and-alternatives-in-the-eu
- AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. January 28, 2010.
Infection is a possible complication with any dehorning method, but is most often associated with invasive procedures that expose the sinus cavity and/or cause blood loss. The use of knives, tubes, Barnes (gouge) dehorners, keystone (guillotine) dehorners, obstetrical wire and saws all increase the risk of infection during dehorning.
Exposed sinuses attract disease-carrying flies, and numerous bacteria can be involved.1 The presence of flies or maggots in sinus cavities will be obvious, but other, more subtle signs of sinusitis can include lack of appetite, fever, nasal discharge and abnormal head carriage.1 Such infections can show up immediately after dehorning or even months later, after the wounds have healed.
Several diseases can be spread by dehorning instruments contaminated with blood from infected animals. Researchers at the University of California found that gouge dehorning significantly increased the risk of bovine leukemia virus (BLV) infection in dairy heifers.2 Conversely, not dehorning with a gouge dehorner reduced the risk of BLV transmission by up to 80 percent.2 Other diseases associated with contaminated dehorning equipment include anaplasmosis, bovine cutaneous papillomas3 and tetanus.3
Early-age disbudding with caustic paste or hot-iron, which do not expose the sinus cavities or cause blood loss, reduces the risk of BLV infection associated with dehorning.
If invasive dehorning methods are used, there are several management steps you should take to reduce the risk of infection in your operation:
Monitor mechanically dehorned animals for signs of infection, such as lack of appetite, fever, abnormal head carriage and foul breath. If you see these signs, contact your veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis and treatment.
How do you control dehorning-associated infection in your operation?
- The Merck Veterinary Manual, 9th Edition, 2011.
- Marei-Liesse G. Lassauzet, et al. Effect of Brucellosis Vaccination and Dehorning on Transmission of Bovine Leukemia Virus in Heifers in a California Dairy. Can J Vet Res 1990; 54: 184-189.
- Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division. January 28, 2010.