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.