Veterinarian’s Corner: Disbud Calves Young – Dr. John Ambrosy, Waunakee Veterinary Service

Posted on May 17, 2019 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. John Ambrosy, Waunakee Veterinary Service DVM
Calves born carrying the genetics for horns are a common presence on dairy farms.  This is a result of most dairy herd breeding plans selecting for bulls that typically revolve around net merit and production traits.  Currently, most polled bulls are not the highest on the list for net merit and production traits.  With the advent and usage of genomics on the male, and now female side, genetic progress is moving at considerable rates in the dairy industry.  Hopefully, polled traits will infiltrate some of the top-ranked bulls and a future generation of dairy farmers will never see a genetically horned dairy calf born.

Until the industry eventually moves toward polled genetics, we must address how to humanely and safely disbud/dehorn our calves for the safety of the herdmates, cattle handlers, and facilities.  The consumer also wants to know that this procedure is done with the calf’s welfare in mind.  In addition, some milk procurement companies and plants now require on-farm disbudding/dehorning standards and protocols on their patrons’ dairies to continue shipping milk.

Disbudding and dehorning defined
The newborn calf’s horn bud is a part of the skin and has special cells surrounding it called the corium, which produce the horn.  Removal of only the horn, and not the corium, will still allow for horn growth.  At around eight weeks old, the horn attaches to the bone of the frontal sinus of the skull.  Removing the horn bud prior to it attaching to the bone is called “disbudding.”  Removing the horn once it has attached to the bone is called “dehorning.”

Pain mitigation for disbudding and dehorning
Mounting evidence shows that pain is associated with disbudding/dehorning.  Research has shown elevated pain markers, such as cortisol, associated with disbudding/dehorning.  Cortisol levels increase 30 to 60 minutes after the disbudding/dehorning, decline slightly, plateau for 3 to 4 hours, and finally return to baseline 6 to 8 hours after the procedure.  During this time, calves also show an increase in behaviors associated with pain, such as head rubbing and shaking, ear flicks, tail flicks, and increased transitions between lying and standing.

Studies have shown providing a local anesthetic reduces cortisol levels and pain behaviors for the duration of the local anesthetic’s effect.  Studies have also shown providing a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) prolonged pain relief post-disbudding/dehorning.  Research shows providing a combination of a local anesthetic for immediate pain relief and an NSAID for extended pain relief virtually abolishes increased cortisol levels and effectively alleviates pain associated with dehorning.

Therefore, disbudding/dehorning protocols can and need to have pain mitigation as a part of the process.  Three ways to address pain are to disbud the calf around the time of colostrum or milk feeding (calves fed milk prior to a single painful procedure have demonstrated reduced heart rates and crying time), use a local anesthetic cornual nerve block, and use an NSAID drug.

Click here to learn about proper use of local anesthetics.

Example disbudding protocols


  1. The calf should be 24 hours old or younger, and the procedure should be performed around the time of colostrum or milk feeding.  Older calves can rub and scratch off the paste.  The calf should also be housed by itself while the paste is on the buds to prevent other calves from rubbing on it.
  2. Identify horn buds and clip hair around each.
  3. While wearing gloves, place a small amount of paste on a thinly layered, dime-sized area over the horn bud. Using too much paste is a common mistake and burns unnecessary areas of skin.
  4. Additional tips:
    1. This procedure should be done out of the rain so paste does not run down the calf’s face and, potentially, into its eyes.
    2. Place pieces of duct tape over the paste to prevent the calf from rubbing off the paste.
    3. After 8 to 12 hours, scrape off the paste and wipe the area with a vinegar-soaked towel.  Avoid getting paste in the eye.

Hot iron

  1. Calves should be less than 8 weeks old when disbudded.
  2. Perform the procedure around the time of milk feeding.
  3. Preheat a dehorning iron with a properly sized tip for the horn bud.
  4. Clip hair around horn bud.
  5. Restrain the calf properly.
  6. Apply heated tip of dehorning iron around the base of the horn bud.
  7. While applying pressure with the iron, rotate burner around the horn bud for about 10 to 15 seconds until the skin separates from the horn.
  8. Lower the dehorner handle and scoop out the horn bud.
  9. Consider a fly deterrent during fly season.

Work with your herd veterinarian to develop disbudding protocols with pain management tailored to your dairy, along with proper training to disbud in a safe way with the calf’s welfare in mind.  Remember to fulfill the standard requirements of your milk procurement company.  Until polled calves exist, dehorning should be a one-time event in a calf’s life.  Ensure regular training is done with your veterinarian for successful and complete removal of the corium tissue and new employees are properly trained to your dairy farm’s protocol.  It’s too late if “disbudded” calves are still growing horns or scurs because of a breach in protocol or improperly trained employees.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care