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.