With Dr. Amy Stanton, University of Wisconsin-Madison Dairy Science assistant professor and animal wellbeing specialist
Calf raisers understand the importance of reducing stress to the calf, especially during its first few months of life. The less energy a calf must spend dealing with stress, the more energy it can put toward healthy development and growth.
That said, the stressful process of dehorning calves is still a “necessary evil” as it prevents risk of injury down the road. But according to Dr. Amy Stanton, this stress can be significantly reduced with proper dehorning procedures.
Stanton is an assistant professor and animal wellbeing specialist with the Dairy Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She said the top goal for dehorning should be to do it early in the calf’s life. Calf raisers have several strategies to choose from based on their management preferences and facilities.
The first and most common option is disbudding, which uses a hot iron to burn the horn bud. Stanton this should be done before the calf reaches one month of age and the horn attaches to the skull. Once the horn attaches, the bone must be “scooped out” from the skull – a much more invasive process. Not only does disbudding early reduce pain, it also lowers the risk of infection.
First, make sure the animal is properly restrained with a halter and unable to swing its body. You want to make sure you have good control over the animal as you’re working with a hot iron.
Stanton recommends using a local anesthetic such as lidocaine to numb the area prior to disbudding. This is similar to the local anesthetic process you might experience before a dental procedure. Lidocaine reduces the pain the calf experiences, which also makes it much easier to handle the calf during the process. Work with your veterinarian to learn the proper techniques for administering lidocaine.
Stanton said you should wait five minutes after administering the lidocaine before you start disbudding. A simple strategy is to disbud a group of calves at the same time. Go down the row to administer the lidocaine and by the time you get back to the first calf, five minutes has passed and you can begin disbudding the group. Stanton reminds calf raisers to take their time. You don’t want to rush through the process and end up with partial regrowth down the road as dealing with the issue then is much more stressful for both the calf and the calf raiser.
Using caustic paste is another option available to calf raisers. Stanton said paste should be applied within the first week of the calf’s life as the application area is smaller and the calf is less likely to scratch its head with its legs.
Stanton warns that caustic paste will burn anything it touches, so take the steps to ensure the paste doesn’t run. Do not apply caustic paste if the calf will be outdoors with any risk of precipitation. Remove hair from the area where the paste will be applied. Next, apply a petroleum jelly (Vaseline) outside of the area before applying the caustic paste. This can help prevent the paste from running.
If calves are housed in group pens, as they would be in autofeeder systems, they should be placed in individual pens for the duration of the caustic paste activity. This will help prevent incomplete burns or risk to other calves that could come in contact with the paste.
Stanton said caustic paste should still be preceded by a local anesthetic such as lidocaine as it is still a painful process. Calf raisers should wear gloves and follow label instructions to apply the paste safely.
Post-procedure pain management
The dehorning process doesn’t end as soon as the calf is disbudded or the paste is applied. In fact, Stanton said calves exhibit behavioral responses to dehorning for four hours after the procedure. Therefore, regardless of the dehorning process, she recommends following the procedure with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain reliever.
Stanton said the meloxicam is a good choice as it remains active in the calf’s system for 72 hours compared to the next best NSAID, which is active for only two to four hours. However, she points out this is an off-label use of the medication. Therefore, this drug can only be used for this purpose on the order of a licensed veterinarian. Work with your veterinarian to receive this approval.
As interest in polled genetics grows, this may be an option for your farm as it eliminates the need to dehorn altogether. Clipping horns, which makes them blunt but doesn’t remove them, is also a strategy used on some farms today.
Regardless of the strategy you choose, Stanton said it’s good to refresh yourself on proper dehorning techniques and technologies once a year by attending meetings led by university extension or professional organizations. As the field of animal wellbeing grows, new strategies are always coming available.
She also said the pay-off for limiting stress during dehorning is worth the minimal investment in medications. Low-stressed calves get back to eating more quickly and also rest more comfortably.
“We don’t want to stress baby animals,” she said. “We want them very protected in the first 60 days.”