Source: National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle Section 4.4
The horns of beef cattle are routinely removed to decrease the risk of injuries to workers and other animals, and to minimize economic losses due to carcass bruising. The proportion of beef cattle with horns has been steadily decreasing in recent years, as the availability and adoption of polled (hornless) genetics has increased (39). Most common breeds of beef cattle have polled lines available, and the use of homozygous polled genetics eliminates the need for disbudding or dehorning without affecting productivity (3,40-42).
Disbudding refers to the removal of the horn bud before attachment to the skull. The age of horn attachment varies, but occurs at approximately 2-3 months of age. Techniques for removing horn buds include removing the horn buds with a knife, thermal cautery of the horn buds with an electric or butane-powered disbudding iron, or the application of chemical paste to cauterize the horn buds (1). Horn removal after bud attachment is referred to as dehorning. Methods of dehorning involve cutting or sawing the horn close to the skull, sometimes followed by cautery to stop bleeding. Disbudding involves less tissue trauma when horn development is still at the horn bud stage and there is no attachment of horn to the skull of the animal (1). Disbudding and dehorning cause pain and distress for all cattle (3). Your herd veterinarian is a good resource for information on possible methods of pain mitigation during and after horn removal (43).
Dehorning must be performed only by competent personnel using proper, well-maintained tools and accepted techniques.
Seek guidance from your veterinarian on the availability and advisability of pain control for disbudding or dehorning beef cattle.
Disbud calves as early as practically possible, while horn development is still at the horn bud stage (typically 2-3 months).
EFFECTIVE JANUARY 1, 2016:
- use homozygous polled bulls where practical to eliminate the need for disbudding or dehorning (3)
- avoid dehorning at the time of weaning to reduce stress (3).