Optimize the welfare of calves during dehorning

Follow several key guidelines to minimize stress and discomfort for calves during the dehorning process.

dairy calf

dairy calf

Dairy calves are dehorned for the safety of the animals and the people who will handle them in the future. Guidelines from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) cover key considerations for the welfare of calves during the dehorning or disbudding process. These guidelines include age at which the procedure is done, proper restraint, use of appropriate methods, and pain control during and after the procedure.

Dehorning and disbudding are best done when the calf is young. When using a hot-iron dehorner, the horn should be removed before the horn base becomes larger than 1-inch in diameter. This is at approximately six weeks of age. During the procedure, restrain the calf using a halter or other head restraint. Providing employee training on safe, low-stress handling techniques is very important.

Applying caustic paste to the calf’s horn buds is another method for dehorning and is most effectively done at 1-3 days of age. Calves must be kept from rubbing paste on other animals. Protecting calves from rain or other moisture for at least 24 hours will prevent the paste from running and causing injury to the calf. A fact sheet from the University of Wisconsin suggests covering the horn buds with duct tape or vet wrap after the paste is applied.

Local anesthesia is highly recommended during hot iron dehorning. A corneal nerve block using lidocaine controls the pain and discomfort of burning. Lidocaine has a 4-day meat withholding time. 

To reduce inflammation and post-procedure pain associated with both procedures, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) are helpful. Meloxicam is a low-cost, oral tablet that can provide pain relief for up to 48 hours with a single dose after either procedure. Using meloxicam in this manner is an extra label drug use. Consequently, it must be prescribed by your herd veterinarian as part of a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). The meat withholding time for meloxicam is 21 days after a single dose.

It is important to consult your veterinarian regarding the proper use and dosage of a local anesthetic or other pain relief for dehorning.

Using appropriate dehorning or disbudding procedures and minimizing the associated pain are essential for a well-managed calf program. Developing protocols for calf care and pain management can ensure that everyone caring for calves follows the same procedures on your farm. Several changes being implemented in the National Dairy FARM program in January 2017 address best practices for dehorning and protocols for pain management.

Dairy calf dehorning is just one topic covered in the Calf Care Schools conducted by Michigan State University Extension dairy educators. Three Calf Care Schools will be offered in the Upper Peninsula on June 21-23, 2016. You can access more details or register for a Calf Care School at the MSU Extension events page.

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