Cattle with horns present a significant risk of inflicting severe injury to both people and other animals on-farm. The wide-spread industry practice of disbudding calves between the age of one to six weeks old, effectively lessens that threat.
Disbudding best practices
Dairy Australia supports disbudding calves before six weeks of age, rather than dehorning cattle at an older age. The keys to effective disbudding are to perform it when the calf is between two and six weeks old, and use a hot iron to cauterise the developing horn bud. Caustic paste is not registered for use for disbudding in Australia (illegal to import).
Pain relief is strongly recommended to decrease calf stress and make the procedure easier for the operator. Options include:
- Over-the-counter anaesthetic and antiseptic spray or gel.
- Veterinarian disbudding which involves the sedation of calves, cornual nerve blocks using local anaesthetic and long-acting pain relief. Other procedures, such as ear tagging, vaccination and removal of spare teats can easily be done while the calves are sedated.
If calves are sedated for the procedure, ensure they are sitting upright immediately afterwards to prevent them regurgitating stomach contents into their lungs. Delay feeding calves until they are alert and back on their feet, which should only take a few hours. Remember:
- Keep the wound dry for at least 24 hours. Delay the procedure if rain is expected unless the calves can be housed.
- Check the calves regularly, at least daily, in the week following the procedure for signs of bleeding or infection.
The Australian dairy industry discourages the dehorning of calves at any age and believes the practice can be avoided completely by disbudding calves before six weeks of age. It is a legal requirement under the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle that appropriate pain relief is used when dehorning cattle over six months of age.
Dairy Australia encourages the selection of dairy sires which are polled, or are carriers of the polled gene, through the Good Bulls Guide.