Horn Talk Blog

When Is The Ideal Time To Apply Dehorning Paste?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Sep 8, 2011
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.5

Are you using caustic paste within the first week of age? Why or why not?

  1. Fred Hopkins, et al. Cattle Preconditioning: Dehorning Calves. Cattle Network. 7/09/2009. www.cattlenetwork.com
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.
  5. 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

Topics: Dehorning Paste, Disbudding, Jeanne Wormuth