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?
This site gets a fair amount of traffic from people looking for ways to manage infection in dehorned calves. We think it’s a subject worth revisiting, as infection is always a potential complication of mechanical dehorning with tubes, Barnes/gouger or guillotine dehorners. These and other invasive methods result in open wounds and can expose sinuses to dirt, dust and disease-carrying insects.
Dehorning equipment can also play a part in infection. A study of heifers on a California dairy showed the risk of bovine leukosis virus (BLV) jumped from 8 to 77% when the heifers were gouge dehorned; the main culprit was infected blood on the equipment.1 Other diseases associated with contaminated dehorning equipment include tetanus1, anaplasmosis and bovine cutaneous papillomas.2 The risks increase for older calves and for animals with compromised immune systems.
The best way to prevent post-dehorning infection is to avoid invasive methods altogether and practice early-age disbudding. Caustic paste disbudding is one such method that can effectively prevent horn growth in calves under eight weeks of age, before horn buds attach to the skull.
If using mechanical methods to dehorn calves older than eight weeks, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of infection before, during and after dehorning.
- Make sure all dehorning instruments are as sterile as possible. Store them in a bucket of water with antiseptic, and clean with disinfectant between animals.
- Sharpen all dehorning instruments.
- Try to schedule dehorning when fly activity is at a minimum.
- Try to avoid dehorning on excessively dusty or wet days.
- If dehorning an older animal with large horns, try to cut cleanly through bone instead of crushing it.
- Treat wounds with a blood coagulant powder. If flies are present, apply an insecticide around the wound, not directly on it.
- Monitor physically dehorned animals for signs of infections, such as loss of appetite, fever, nasal discharge abnormal head carriage and bad breath. If you see these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.
How do you prevent post-dehorning infection in your operation?
1. Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division. April 20, 2012.
2. 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.
Every five years, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reviews its animal welfare policies. The 80,000-member organization recently updated its Animal Welfare Policy on Castration and Dehorning with input from AVMA members and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP). On the subject of dehorning, the Animal Welfare Committee made two changes:
The policy now contains a mention of the importance of genetics in selecting for the polled (hornless) trait.
The policy now includes language recommending the use of local anesthetics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve postoperative pain as well as preoperative pain for dehorning procedures other than disbudding.
We applaud the AVMA for expanding its recommendation for pain relief during dehorning. We’re also pleased to see the organization drawing a sharper distinction between disbudding and “other dehorning procedures.” This is a tacit acknowledgement that disbudding is indeed less invasive and more painful than other methods of horn removal.
Other elements of the policy remain unchanged, including statements that:
Dehorning is painful.
Dehorning is important for human and animal safety (this is where the AVMA parts ways with most animal activists).
Dehorning should be performed at the earliest age practicable.
Research leading to new or improved pain relief methods is encouraged.
Disbudding is still the preferred method for dehorning calves.
The AVMA is arguably the largest supporter of animal welfare in the United States, and its recommendations should be taken seriously by both livestock producers and animal activists alike. We hope the AVMA considers including a recommendation for caustic paste disbudding, the least invasive dehorning method, in its next round of welfare policy updates.
What do you think of the AMVA’s revised position on dehorning?
Dehorning is a painful, stressful procedure. 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 a local anesthetic (nerve block) on dehorned calves, and only two percent used analgesia (like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs). A similar survey of Ontario dairy farms found only 23 percent of producers use lidocaine nerve blocks at the time of dehorning.
Those numbers might improve if producers were aware of the economic benefits associated with the use of pain relief and stress reduction. For example:
Reduced disease. All producers know that pain and stress increase an animal’s susceptibility to disease. An article published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2011 showed that calves treated with NSAIDs prior to castration experienced less bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in the feedlot. BRD steals dairy profits through treatment costs, reduced milk production and death loss; the impact is even greater on the beef side, where the disease costs an estimated $800 and $900 million a year. Producers can help reduce these losses by using pain relief for invasive procedures like dehorning.
Higher performance. Dr. Temple Grandin has written extensively on the impact of stress and fear on animal performance and meat quality. She has cited numerous studies showing that stressed animals experience significantly lower weight gains, reduced reproductive function including abortion, lower rumen function and lower milk yields. Conversely, reducing stress “will help reduce sickness and enable cattle to go back on feed more quickly,” she wrote. The Journal of Animal Science article showed that pain relief used in calves at castration can increase average daily gain.
So why aren’t more producers using pain management for dehorning? Cost is a factor, of course. So is lack of certainty over effectiveness, especially for paste disbudding which is minimally invasive to begin with. Then there’s the issue of training and anatomical knowledge, which may be necessary for determining dose, route, duration and frequency of drug administration.
As the food animal system moves toward greater transparency, consumers increasingly want assurances that their food is produced in a safe and humane manner. Not only is pain relief good for the calf, and reassuring for the consumer, but it may actually be profitable as well.
Does pain relief pay in your operation?
This past week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the decline of tail docking in the dairy industry. It cited the recent resolution by the National Milk Producers Federation to alter its position and oppose routine tail docking except in cases of traumatic injury to the animal.
The NMPF now recommends the practice be phased out completely by 2022, giving producers time to implement on-farm management changes to address udder hygiene, parlor design, worker safety and other reasons commonly cited for tail docking. The American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Bovine Practitioners already oppose tail docking, and the practice has been banned in California; other states will surely follow.
Activists undoubtedly see the decline in tail docking as a victory. However, the NMPF resolution also represents a victory of sorts for the dairy industry by taking control of the issue, and shaping it to minimize its impact on producers. In a letter to NMPF members, President Jerry Kozak wrote, “Rather than give the animal rights community a tool with which to beat on dairy farmers, it’s more prudent to be proactive, and use our heads to handle this ourselves.”
What does this mean for dehorning? It means the industry may soon need to take control of this narrative – as the NMPF has done with the issue of tail docking – and shape it so it not only aligns with changing welfare standards, but allows producers time to adjust for minimum negative impact on their operations.
What do you think of the new NMPF resolution opposing tail docking?
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.
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 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.
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.
Julie Berry is a freelance science writer.
Another animal rights activist undercover video of a NY farm was released last week that targeted dehorning and other common animal care practices.
Animal rights activists continue to use these videos as a tactic to support legislation that guides how animals are cared for. While this legislation to general consumers can appear well-meaning, it is often not based on science, and can threaten to drive food production overseas.
However, farmers need to take seriously concerns of consumers about how animals are treated on farms, keep current on research and best management practices, and tell their farm family story effectively.
One area of growing research is use of pain management with practices such as dehorning and castration. A recent article published in the Journal of Animal Science showed that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) protocols used in calves at castration can increase average daily gain and reduce susceptibility to disease.
Castration improves meat quality and reduces animal injuries at the feedlot. No compounds are currently approved for pain relief in cattle and available products may not be practical or cost-effective.
“Identification of analgesic compounds that may also have performance benefits after castration would provide livestock producers with an efficient and economically viable way to address animal health and welfare concerns,” wrote the study authors.
The study “Effect of oral meloxicam on health and performance of beef steers relative to bulls castrated on arrival at the feedlot” compared the effect of the NSAID meloxicam on health and performance of calves received as steers versus bull calves castrated surgically on arrival at the feedlot. In castrated calves meloxicam reduced the pen-level first pull rate and reduced bovine respiratory disease. Meloxicam administration via an oral dose mixed in 50 mL of water before castration in post-weaning calves reduced the incidence of respiratory disease at the feedlot. Meloxicam mitigates pain associated with inflammation after castration.
“These findings suggest that meloxicam administration before castration in post-weaning calves may decrease the number of castrated calves requiring antimicrobial therapy for pneumonia and lessen the economic impact of BRD in livestock production systems. These results have implications for developing pain mitigation strategies involving NSAID in calves at castration with respect to addressing both animal health and welfare concerns,” wrote the study authors.
“Meloxicam administered to cattle by any route constitutes extra-drug label use because currently no analgesic drugs are specifically approved to provide pain relief in livestock in the United States. Under the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act, extra-label drug use is permitted under veterinary supervision for relief of suffering in cattle provided specific conditions are met. Meloxicam injection (20 mg/mL) is approved for use in cattle in the European Union with a 15 day meat withdrawal and in Canada with a 20 day meat withdrawal time after administration of 0.5 mg/kg IV or SC.”