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.
Eighteen months ago, I wrote my first blog post for Horn Talk -- the first and thus far only blog dedicated exclusively to the subject of dehorning. Since then, Horn Talk, which is part of the Dehorning.com website, has logged thousands of page views from people all over the world. We’ve covered topics ranging from pain relief during dehorning to food traceability, and explored the perspectives of producers, veterinarians, activists and consumers on two continents. We’ve also been fortunate to feature guest blogs from the some of the brightest minds in the industry. Along the way, some posts seemed to have struck a nerve more than others. Here, in reverse order, are the 10 most popular posts to date on Horn Talk.
#10: Top 2 Consumer Misconceptions About Dehorning. This post had something for everyone: dairy farmers, beef producers, veterinarians, animal rights activists and, of course, consumers.
#9: UBC Survey: Is Pain Relief Needed When Disbudding Or Dehorning Calves? Dehorning is an invasive procedure, and pain relief is a topic we've returned to time and again on Horn Talk.
#8: New Mercy For Animals Video Shows Animal Cruelty And Dehorning. There’s no excuse for abusing calves. It’s especially unfortunate when a procedure like dehorning gets swept up in the scandal and forces the industry to repeatedly defend standard management practices that reduce the risk of injury to humans and animals.
#7: A Step-By-Step Guide To Using Dehorning Paste. It's not difficult to apply dehorning paste, but instructions should be followed carefully for best results. This post featured both a video and written instructions.
#6: Dr. Aurora Villarroel: My Experience With Dehorning Paste. Dr. Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University, has been one of the industry’s most passionate proponents of humane paste disbudding.
#5: PETA Proposes An End To Dehorning. Which organization has more credibility when it comes to advising dairy producers on the subject of dehorning? An animal rights group with a vegan agenda? Or the association representing more than 80,000 veterinarians in the United States?
#4: New McDonald’s Ad Campaign Features Suppliers. McDonald’s new focus on beef and produce suppliers got mixed reviews from consumers, but Horn Talk readers seemed favorably impressed.
#3: Managing Infection In Dehorned Calves. Apparently, a lot of people are searching the Internet for ways to prevent infection during dehorning (Hint: Try caustic paste disbudding). Quite a few of them are landing on this post.
#2: Why Paste Disbudding Is Preferred At CY Heifer Farm. Horn Talk readers were intrigued by the story of a crew member’s painful encounter with a butane dehorner, and the switch to a new disbudding protocol for this upstate New York calf raising facility.
#1: How Caustic Dehorning Paste Works. One of our briefest posts ever, this straightforward explanation of how dehorning paste prevents horn growth continues to be the most popular blog post ever on Horn Talk.
We were happy to provide Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University, with 250 laminated copies of her paste dehorning poster for her presentation at last week’s conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) in St. Louis, MO. We were even happier to learn all 250 copies were snatched up by attendees.
“The veterinarians and students at AABP loved the posters” said Dr. Villarroel. “I just was sorry I didn’t have more copies to hand out.”
Dehorning.com readers may remember Dr. Villarroel from her guest blog last April about her experience with dehorning paste, and from her November 2010 article in Hoard’s Dairyman, Dehorn Calves Early. She was one of several experts invited to speak on a range of topics related to cattle health at the AABP’s 44th Annual Conference. Her presentation, part of a Practice Tips series, emphasized the ease, effectiveness and economics of disbudding with caustic paste.
“I showed several videos that demonstrated the minimal reaction of the calves,” said Dr. Villarroel, “and how easy it is to apply the paste.” She also addressed timing (“before two days of age” and “after a bottle”), the amount to use (“the size of a dime”) and follow-up care (“don’t let calves get wet for 24 hours”). Dr. Villarroel noted that producers who have switched to paste report great success with no complications, and only minor head shaking in response to application.
Dr.Villarroel’s paste dehorning poster has been promoted in numerous industry publications and websites, including Bovine Veterinarian Magazine and Dairy Herd Network, and features step-by-step application instructions in both English and Spanish. You can download the poster here or contact Dr. Villarroel for more information at email@example.com
This week's blog post is written by Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University. Dr. Villarroel's objective is to enhance the health of food animals in Oregon, especially ruminants. She currently teaches courses at the School of Veterinary Medicine related to cattle, sheep and goat medicine and surgery. Her research interests include veterinary epidemiology, herd health and production medicine, with special focus on dairy cattle. She is the recent author of "Dehorn Calves Early."
By Guest Blogger: Aurora Villarroel, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Dip.ACVPM, Extension Veterinarian, Department of Animal Sciences, Oregon State University
I have noticed that the caustic dehorning paste is rarely used in farms in the U.S., and I keep hearing dissatisfaction among dairy farmers that have tried it. I started using the paste in Spain more than 20 years ago, and in my experience it is the best dehorning method available, by far.
There are two things you need to pay attention to: timing and housing.
Timing: the secret for the dehorning paste to work well is to dehorn before two days of age! The main reason for this is that after two days of age, calves can figure out how to scratch their heads against something to rub the paste off, and they can stand on three legs to scratch with the other. Additionally, applying the dehorning paste immediately before feeding colostrum (preferably with a nipple) will reduce signs of pain. 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.
Housing: calves need to be protected from rain for 24 hours after applying the paste. If rain falls over the active dehorning paste, there will be run off towards the eyes that can blind the calf.
Like with any other product, follow manufacturer directions (package insert); the amount of paste to apply on each horn is equivalent to a dime. Using too much paste is the most common mistake of beginners. It will result in big bald spot around the horn area, but the hair will grow back in a couple of months.
Clients who have switched to paste dehorning in newborn calves are very happy with the results: quick, simple and painless.
"Dehorn Calves Early" (Hoard's West - Nov. 2010) is authored by Aurora Villarroel, DVM, Assistant Professor, Rural Veterinary Practice, College of Veterinary Medicine, Oregon State University.
Dr. Villarroel says "... in my experience dehorning paste is actually the best [dehorning] method available. However, you need to pay attention to two things to make it work well: timing and housing." Her article includes a step-by-step paste dehorning process. Read the full article...