How to make pain more manageable during calf dehorning |

How to make pain more manageable during calf dehorning

Kristin Danley-Greiner
For The Fence Post
Leaving horns on a cow can be detrimental for both the cow, other livestock in the herd and the humans that handle it.
Photo courtesy Jake Jenkins |

Dehorning, or disbudding, is a common practice for cattle producers, but there are a couple of things farmers can do to help reduce the discomfort and pain levels the livestock experience.

The biggest concern with leaving horns growing on cattle involves both the safety of the animals and those who work with the cattle. Richard Randle, beef Extension veterinarian for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, hails from Mississippi where his dad also was a veterinarian. Randle has spent a lot of time dehorning cattle and said cattle establish a social order, a pecking order and cattle with horns have an advantage.

“They tend to become the dominant animals, so they’ll keep other animals away from the feed bunk or watering trough and it becomes an issue,” Randle said. “Then when they do fight, there’s excessive damage to the animal. Then you also have concerns with the safety of personnel who work with those animals. They could be injured or gored. You have to be cautious around these animals anyway.”

Options for dehorning are electrocautery, burning off the horns and surgical removal. Randle said the ideal approach, however, is to make sure the cattle are quite young when the procedure is done. Dairy calves often are debudded within the first two to three days of life, for example.

“The younger the age of the animal, the better it is for both the animal and for those of us doing it,” Randle said.

Randle identified a chemical dehorning method using a caustic paste that is smeared on a horn bud, which destroys its growth. Amy Stanton, cattle specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension, also recommended dehorning by six weeks if a hot iron is to be used.

Faith Cullens with Michigan State University Extension said the best way to avoid having horns in a herd is to rely on polled genetics, but that isn’t always feasible. She advised getting the job done before a calf reaches its third month because then it becomes more of a surgical procedure that should be performed by a veterinarian and not a producer. Cullens prefers caustic paste, which feels similar to being stung by bees, she said. Many herds have had success with this process, she said, by applying the paste immediately following a colostrum feeding.

Electrocautery is used to burn the buds. Surgical removal is not cost effective for a producer with a large herd, but dairies often use this approach because the births are staggered, but it’s not as common for beef cattle, Randle said.


It’s also easier for producers with large-scale cattle operations to dehorn the young calves at the same time, rather than staggering the process. Ideally, dehorning beef calves can be timed with branding when they’re between 1 to 3 months of age, Randle said. Electrocautery is still effective during this time frame, because the horn buds are still small enough to be successfully removed, he noted.

“As the calves get older, the process becomes more involved as the horns grow larger and begin to grow into the skull; that’s another reason why it’s preferable to do this at a younger age,” he said. “It’s less stress and less painful on them.”

Unfortunately, there is an amount of pain associated with dehorning, but producers and veterinarians are more conscientious about controlling the pain during the procedure. Randle said there must be immediate pain control during the procedure, as well as afterward.

“It’s recommended to use lidocaine, which can deaden the major nerve that desensitizes the horn. It’s just like getting a tooth pulled at the dentist. But that wears off in a couple of hours and there is pain associated with the healing process,” Randle said.

While there isn’t a treatment yet approved by the FDA in food-producing animals, there’s been substantial research done regarding pain medication in cattle. Randle said meloxicam is an anti-inflammatory agent similar to ibuprofen that is “extremely effective” for up to five days or more to help control the pain in livestock after the procedure.

“Since the medication hasn’t been approved yet and therefore isn’t available over the counter, a veterinarian would have to prescribe it,” Randle said. “But research shows that it really helps with the pain management.”

Randle said with a bit of instruction on using the post-dehorning medication and an ideal administration of lidocaine, the process will be quick and not as troublesome for the calves.

“It’s not like when you’re at the dentist having to wait 10 to 15 minutes for the nerve to desensitize. There is a specific location and you just deposit it next to or on the nerve and you can immediately dehorn with effective pain control,” Randle said.

Veterinarians such as Randle usually are willing to help instruct cattle producers in using the two types of pain control medication, particularly lidocaine, for the sake of the calves, he said.

“It’s important that producers obtain the appropriate products and to make sure it’s done appropriately,” he said. ❖

— Danley-Greiner has spent more than 20 years as a journalist covering local, state and national issues important to agriculture and those dedicated to farming.


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