An increasing number of dairy producers are converting from hot-iron to caustic paste for early age dehorning. Here’s why:
1. Paste is less painful: Research from the University of British Columbia found that calves dehorned with caustic paste experience less pain than calves dehorned with a hot iron, even when a local anesthetic is used.
2. Paste is safer for crew: You may remember this guest blog by Jeanne Wormuth, manager at CY Heifer Farm, citing an employee’s burn injury as the main reason her facility switched to paste. There’s also no need for a squeeze chute or extreme physical restraint. Check out this video of a calf being dehorned with caustic paste.
3. Paste has high acceptance in the industry: Caustic paste is consistent with recommendations from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Gold Standards III, which recommends a “cautery” method at less than one month of age, and the AVMA Animal Welfare Policy, which recommends that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.”
4. Paste is preferred by consumers: With paste, there’s no smoke, no bawling and very little, if any, resistance from the calf. And there’s nothing sensational to capture in an undercover video.
Still curious about paste? Check out these Top 5 Producer Concerns about Using Caustic Dehorning Paste, then try paste for yourself. Humane animal management practices are a good enough reason to switch, and are increasingly being requested by consumers. Why wouldn’t you switch?
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.
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
Animal activists have released another undercover video showing what they claim are abusive practices at a New York dairy operation. The two-minute video released last month shows workers herding animals with poles and electric prods, inseminating cows, tail-docking and includes a close-up photograph of a cow’s prolapsed uterus (a common, easily treated condition following calving). The video also shows a worker disbudding young calves with an electric dehorner; the group’s website claims workers “lop[ped] off” the horns of older calves, although there is no video shown to support this.
This organization is now urging the public to email one of the dairy’s customers, a cooperative supplier, and request the company adopt the group’s own “reasonable” animal welfare guidelines. These guidelines call for the elimination of a number of industry and management practices, including dehorning.
The dairy in question has been welfare-certified by the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program (NYSCHA) (a process in which every animal on the farm is examined by a veterinarian), and we will not debate its welfare practices here. What we find distasteful is this activist group’s purported interest in advancing farm animal welfare when its real agenda is promoting a vegan diet. Sensationalist undercover videos are less about improving the ways animals are cared for than about supporting legislation that will eventually drive food animal production overseas.
What’s more, proposing a total ban on basic management procedures like dehorning is both unrealistic and unsafe. Animal with horns present a very real threat to humans, other cows, dogs and horses. The American Veterinary Medical Association knows this, and has long endorsed the practice of dehorning, provided steps are taken to minimize pain and distress.
Animal activist groups might better advance their objectives to “improve the lives of cows and calves on dairy farms” by meeting farmers halfway, i.e., encouraging the adoption of early-age disbudding with caustic paste. This practice has been shown in studies to cause significantly less pain than dehorning with a hot-iron, and helps improve the safety of both humans and animals.
Ohio Dairy Farmers recently released an excellent public education video on the importance of humane dehorning. The 3-minute video, Dehorning: A Humane Practice Focused on Cow Safety, is narrated by a veterinarian who explains the rationale behind dehorning, advocates early-age disbudding and the use of pain relief, and demonstrates butane dehorning on a young calf.
We applaud Ohio Dairy Farmers’ for their efforts in educating non-ag audiences about the practice of dehorning, and for their support of humane, early-age disbudding and pain management.
Caustic paste is another humane option for early-age disbudding. Caustic paste disbudding with a local anesthetic (such as the one administered to the calf in the video) has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron disbudding with both a local anesthetic and a sedative. What’s more, when disbudding is performed at 3-5 days of age, there is usually no need for squeeze chute; just mild restraint is necessary.
What do you think of the Ohio Dairy Farmers’ dehorning video?
Last week’s blog about the Mercy For Animals undercover video showing dehorning in the same context as egregious animal abuse led one reader to comment:
"Analgesia and sedation are not practical, as some users will skip them to save time, leaving the industry open to videos of abuse."
The writer is correct about some producers skipping analgesia during dehorning. Although the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends the use of pain relief for procedures like dehorning, a survey of U.S. dairy farms found only 12 percent of producers used anesthetic (nerve block) on dehorned calves, and only two percent used analgesia (pain relief). A similar survey of Ontario dairy farms found 23 percent of producers use lidocaine nerve blocks at the time of dehorning.
Yes, administering pain-relieving injections and/or medications takes time and costs money. But it’s the right thing to do. Not only because of the AVMA recommendation, but also because pain relief reduces stress on the animal, potentially impacting everything from weight gain to disease resistance. And, to the writer’s point, using analgesia and/or sedation leaves the producer less vulnerable to accusations of animal abuse.
Options for pain relief include xylazine to help calm the animal, lidocaine, an injectable anesthetic (nerve block) to control acute pain, and ketoprofen, a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for post-operative pain relief. Most important, early-age disbudding with caustic paste has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron dehorning, even when a local anesthetic is used.
Do you use pain relief for dehorning? Why or why not?
Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.
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.
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.
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.
“Ethical” is a word tossed around a lot lately in the animal welfare debate. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ethical can be defined as, “relating to ethics [the discipline of dealing with what is good or bad]”, “involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval” and “conforming to accepted standards of conduct”.
Let’s start with the issue of dehorning as “good” or “bad”. Some say “bad”, because it’s painful for the animal. However, vaccination is also a painful procedure. Few would argue that vaccination is “bad”, because it ultimately confers the benefit of disease prevention. Does not dehorning also confer the benefit of preventing injuries from horned herd-mates? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, dehorned cattle are less likely to suffer bruising, inflict injury to the udders, flanks or eyes of other cattle, or injure horses, dogs and handlers.1 Ultimately, dehorning benefits not only the animal that undergoes the procedure, but also all the other animals and humans it encounters throughout its life.
The issue, then, comes down to the ethics of the dehorning method itself. There are several ways to dehorn cattle, ranging from caustic paste disbudding in young calves to hand saw dehorning in mature animals. The pain inflicted on the animal, and the risk of injury posed by each of these methods, vary widely. Surveys tell us most dairy farmers use a hot-iron to disbud calves,2 while most cow-calf producers use Barnes or Guillotine dehorners.3 These methods would therefore seem to fit the definition of ethical as conforming to accepted standards of conduct. But just because a practice is widely accepted does not necessarily make it morally acceptable. And, accepted standards of conduct can change over time as we’re witnessing now in the animal welfare debate.
Is it ethical to dehorn animals with saws, tubes, knives, Barnes and other tools when other less painful, equally effective methods exist?
Is it ethical to perform dehorning – or any potentially painful animal management practices – without the use of pain relievers or sedatives?
What are your views of the ethics of dehorning?
- AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. January 28, 2010.
- 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.
"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...
The AVMA recently posted a great video titled "AVMA's Policy on Pain Control for Dehorning." The AVMA makes some very good suggestions for reducing the pain associated with dehorning, and the video shows some calves being disbudded using a hot-iron. The YouTube video can be viewed below. The video is also available on AVMA TV.
Caustic paste is another way producers can minimize dehorning pain. According to a University of British Columbia study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, caustic paste is less painful than hot-iron, even when both a sedative and local anesthetic are used.
What do you think of the AVMA recommendations?
For today's blog post, Jeanne Wormuth, Manager, CY Heifer Farm shares her insights and experiences dehorning calves.
CY Heifer Farm raises 4,000 calves for 10 dairies in central and western New York. Jeanne began working as operations manager at the heifer farm 12 years ago when it was owned by Agway. CY Farms, owned by Craig Yunker, purchased the heifer facility in 1995.
By Guest Blogger: Jeanne Wormuth, Manager, CY Heifer Farm, Elba, NY
I’ve been raising dairy replacement heifers at our biosecure facility for more than a decade. We now dehorn about 2,000 calves each year. A few years ago, one of our employees accidentally burned herself while using a butane dehorner. We wanted a safer alternative, and our veterinarian suggested caustic paste. We decided to give it a try, and now all our calves are dehorned with paste.
Calves arrive at our farm when they’re around 3 days old. We apply the paste that same day, after they have eaten and are a bit sleepy. It’s obviously less stressful for them than the butane burner. Some shake their heads a bit, but many don’t react at all. There’s definitely less risk of injury to our employees – they just have to wear a pair of protective gloves.
Now, you do have to take your time and go through all the steps – shaving, brushing and application. You can’t take short cuts or speed it up. That’s probably the one disadvantage of this method compared to a hot-iron. But when you consider the improvements in employee safety and animal welfare, paste disbudding is definitely worth the extra steps.
Some farmers are reluctant to use dehorning paste because they think it doesn’t work. I’ve heard those rumors, too. But I’ve dehorned thousands of calves and can tell you if you use dehorning paste correctly, it is every bit as effective as a hot-iron. It’s definitely a lot less stressful – for both the calves and the crew!