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Learn about topics to help you manage calf welfare, including the correct method for disbudding calves, managing disease, injury and general good practices for calf welfare.

Managing calf welfare

All calves must be cared for from birth to ensure:

  • the risk of disease and discomfort is minimised
  • calves are healthy and happy, allowing them grow into healthy and productive cows.

Dairy Australia is working across the supply chain from farm to processor to ensure that calves are managed to meet agreed industry practices and standards.

Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) animal welfare policies set the minimum expected standard for the care of all dairy animals. These can be found on the Australian Dairy Farmer’s website

  • Copy Link Disbudding and dehorning

    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 

    After Care

    After disbudding, the wound should be kept dry for at least 24 hours. Delay the procedure if rain is expected unless the calves can be housed.

    Check the animals regularly (at least daily) in the week following the procedure for signs of bleeding or infection. If calves were sedated, ensure they are sitting upright immediately afterwards to ensure they do not regurgitate stomach contents onto their lungs. Delay feeding the calves until they are alert and back on their feet, which should only take a few hours.

    Polled genetics

    Some dairy sires are polled or are carriers of polled genetics, and Dairy Australia encourages selecting for these animals through the Good Bulls Guide. The availability of polled genetics is improving, though it is important to avoid inbreeding when joining back to polled genetics for the second generation. Consult with DataGene or your genetics supplier for more information.


    Dehorning involves cutting the horn after it has attached to the skull using a dehorner, knife or other methods. This is more painful than disbudding, is accompanied by marked bleeding and leaves an open wound over the horn base.

    The Australian dairy industry policy is that dehorning should not be used as standard practice. If it must be used (e.g. disbudding failure), pain relief must be provided.


  • Copy Link Rearing healthy calves fact sheets and calculators

    Rearing healthy calves fact sheets and calculators

    Fact sheets

    The following fact sheets are designed to supplement the information contained in the Rearing Healthy Calves manual.

    Calf management calculators

    These tools require Microsoft Excel 2007 to be loaded on the computer.

  • Copy Link Rearing healthy calves

    Rearing healthy calves manual

    Rearing Healthy Calves manual 2nd edition (2017) (PDF, 11MB)

    This is the new edition of our practical guide to all aspects of calf management from birth to weaning - A4 book 182pp

    Order your free manual here.


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