Disbudding and dehorning
Horned dairy cattle can cause injury to other stock and to stock handlers. Most Australian dairy cattle are born with horns, which need to be removed. This can be done by either disbudding or dehorning.
Disbudding is when the horn buds are removed before the horn attaches to the skull, which normally occurs by the time calves reach six to eight weeks of age. Dehorning refers to removing the horns after this age.
Dehorning is a more invasive procedure with extra risks of complications, such as infection, fly strike and excessive bleeding. Dairy Australia encourages farmers to disbud calves before six to eight weeks of age, rather than dehorning cattle at an older age.
Breeding polled cows, though selecting polled genetics in breeding decisions, allows farmers to avoid disbudding completely.
Industry policy for disbudding calves
The Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) policy is: "Calves should be disbudded under two months of age with pain relief."
The full list of Australian Dairy Farmers animal welfare policies can be found on their website.
Disbudding and pain relief
Disbudding is best performed when the calf is two to six weeks of age. At this age, the calves are more robust and the horn bud can be easily felt, but the horn has not yet attached to the skull.
A hot iron, usually heated by gas, is used to cauterise the developing horn bud, preventing further growth. Caustic paste products are not currently registered for use for disbudding in Australia.
More information on cautery disbudding can be found in the 'Guide to cautery disbudding for calves'.
The use of pain relief during disbudding is required in industry policy as it decreases stress and pain for the calves, as well as making the procedure easier for the operator. Studies have shown that calves recover quicker and have less growth check in the days following disbudding if local anaesthetic and anti-inflammatory drugs are used. These drugs are only available upon prescription by veterinarians and their availability may vary in different regions.
Non-veterinary topical pain relief spray gel is available from rural resellers and vets without prescription, providing another easy and accessible option. It can be used alone or in conjunction with other methods such as local anaesthetic and anti-inflammatory drugs to provide more comprehensive pain relief when disbudding calves.
‘Gold standard’ disbudding involves sedation of the calves, cornual nerve blocks using local anaesthetic and long acting anti-inflammatory pain relief. This is a veterinary procedure but the extra costs are offset by the advantages. Topical pain relief spray gel is sometimes used as an added method of pain relief in this protocol.
When using this method, calves lie down and sleep after they are sedated, which reduces the stress of handling for both the calves and operators. The local anaesthetic blocks the pain of the cauterisation procedure and the anti-inflammatory drug provides ongoing pain relief for up to three days. Other procedures, such as ear tagging, vaccination and removal of spare teats can easily be done whilst the calves are sleeping.
For more information on providing pain relief for disbudding, refer to the 'Pain relief for disbudding calves' fact sheet.
The following videos demonstrate how to disbud calves at less than two months of age using the hot iron cautery technique with pain relief:
Disbudding of dairy calves part 1 - setting up
Disbudding of dairy calves part 2 - administration of pain relief
Disbudding of dairy calves part 3 - thermal disbudding