Chances of successful dehorning improve when trained personnel execute written protocol.

August 21, 2020

3 Min Read
Oklahoma State horned cattle.jpg
Genetic selection is making horned cattle increasingly uncommon, but producers who raise them need to employ dehorning practices that promote animal well-being.Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services

Livestock producers with horned cattle should develop and implement dehorning plans that improve efficiency and animal well-being, according to Oklahoma State University experts.

“A successful plan involves the use of a written protocol, knowledgeable and skilled personnel and ways to minimize stress and promote healing,” said Dr. Rosslyn Biggs, Oklahoma State Extension veterinarian and director of continuing education for the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Seek input from your veterinarian when developing the written protocol.”

She said a well-designed protocol should address:

  • Calf age;

  • Personnel training;

  • Animal restraint, and

  • Pain management.

Biggs said the protocol and any notes related to its implementation should be reviewed yearly.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners updated its guidance for dehorning practices in 2019 and separated dehorning recommendations from those for castration and adding pain mitigation strategies. The complete list of recommendations is available online.

Experts recommend that dehorning should take place as early as practically possible. There are two common forms of horn removal: disbudding and mechanical removal of the horns. Disbudding involves removal or destruction of the horn-producing corium cells in young calves.

“This can occur as early as 24 hours of life, but care must be taken to prevent calf injury,” said Earl Ward, Oklahoma State Extension area livestock specialist for northeastern Oklahoma. “Disbudding is preferable over mechanical removal, but it’s not always practical for beef producers. Mechanical removal of horns prior to the calf reaching three months of age is recommended. Again, producers should follow the plan established with their veterinarian.”

Ward and Biggs said the chances of a successful dehorning improve when the protocol is executed by trained personnel. Training prepares personnel to address wound management to avoid infection, flies and pain for older calves and those with prominent horns.

If using a combination of physical and chemical restraint, make sure facilities are in good working order and that the calf's head can be safely secured, they said. Sedatives should be used only on the order of a veterinarian.

“Although some sedatives may offer pain control, many do not, and pain management should be employed to improve animal welfare following the procedure,” Biggs said.

Local anesthesia can provide immediate relief for several hours following the procedure. Longer-term pain control can be achieved using non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs. However, no such drug is currently labeled for pain relief after dehorning, so whatever is used must be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian.

The Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act requires that an extra-label drug be used only with a valid veterinary/client/patient relationship, documented drug selection process, records of maintenance and observance of defined withholding times, Oklahoma State said.

Only 7.8% of U.S. beef cattle are horned -- a significant downward trend from previous reports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Monitoring System "Beef Cow-Calf Study," which was conducted in 2017 and released this year.

“Genetic selection has played a significant role, as the vast majority of beef cattle producers have embraced the concept of incorporating polled genetics,” Ward said. “This trend also likely will be seen in many dairy breeds in the years ahead.”

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