Demystifying the Dehorning of Dairy Cattle [with Video]

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge and Bob-White Systems
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It seems like every twenty years or so the subject of dehorning dairy cattle catches the eye of the non-farming public. This year I have seen several Facebook posts and read several articles that condemn dehorning as animal cruelty – no exceptions.  It is a fairly complicated subject but on the other hand it is also pretty simple.

I am old enough to remember the days when not all commercial farmers dehorned their cows and stories of people and cows being gored were not that uncommon.  Horns on dairy cattle can be very dangerous for the humans caring for them as well as other cows.  In nature, the horns on the wild ancestors of cows were weapons used for both defensive and offensive purposes. In a well-managed dairy farm horns are completely unnecessary.

I don’t believe horns strengthen the spirit of cows. My farm is not a wildlife sanctuary.  I want my cows to be domesticated, easily handled and relaxed around me and other people.  The cows that I raise from calves will follow me around the pasture and scratch heads on my back and legs.  I’d be a dead man today if my cows had horns.

But there is a catch. Dehorning calves can be a brutal experience that I agree can be called animal cruelty. But remember our attitudes towards farm animals and pets have changed dramatically in the past quarter century.  It used to be that pain wasn’t a factor with farm animals.  You did what you had to do and it didn’t matter if it caused the animal pain or not.  If and when anesthesia was used, it was for the safety of the farmer not the comfort of the animal.  My father used to shoot our cats if they got sick.  Today I bring my cats and dogs to the “animal hospital” and paying a $500 bill when I leave is not unusual.  It’s a different world.

Up until the 1990s I had my calves dehorned with a big old red hot electric iron that burned the horn bud off the calves’ skulls along with a nearly 2 inch circle of flesh that surrounded the horn bud.  Smoke poured off the calves’ head during the procedure and the stench of burning hair and flesh filled the air.  I didn’t use anesthesia so we had to forcefully restrain the calf as it writhed in pain.  What bothered me most was that dehorned calves would never fully trust me again.  Not that I blamed them. I tried other methods such as gouging out the horn buds but that was bloody and equally gruesome.

Finally one day when the vet arrived to dehorn a few of my calves I asked him if we could please use a local anesthesia.  He said “sure, but it is going to cost more.” I didn’t care. The difference was remarkable, even though we still used the big old electric burner.  The calves didn’t struggle and the trauma of the procedure was eliminated.  The calves would basically just stand there not feeling a thing; though I am sure their heads were sore after the anesthesia wore off. 

The next big development in dehorning came when I was introduced to a new type of dehorner in the late 1990s. It was a small propane burner that simply removes the horn bud. All the collateral damage to the surrounding flesh is eliminated.  The procedure should be performed before the calf is a month old while the horn buds are still tiny, about the size of a dime or less. After a couple of weeks there is virtually no sign of the procedure. And the calves’ attitude toward me never changes. They still trust me.

Dehorning (also known as debudding) a calf is not animal cruelty when it is done properly at the right age. The danger to people and other cows associated with leaving the horns on the cow eliminated. A cow with horns doesn’t have to attack a person or another cow to seriously injure themselves. Cows swing their heads when they groom themselves, chase off flies, or scratch themselves, etc.  If you are in the way of a cows’ horns you’ll get gored. 

Cows with horns tend to understand they have weapons on their heads and are not afraid to use them offensively against other cows.  As a result you shouldn’t mix cows with horns with dehorned cows because the cows with horns will terrorize dehorned ones.  It is an all or nothing proposition.

The reason to dehorn cows far outweighs how cool cows with horns look.  Of course there are exceptions.  There are dairy farmers who grew up with horned cows who feel comfortable and have experience handling them. For example Devon cows are naturally horned and must be horned to be shown.  Dexter cows are also horned but they are rarely dehorned because their horns are relatively short and don’t represent as much of a threat to people or other cows.

Hopefully further advancements will be made with the dehorning process.  The ideal solution would be breeding cows to bulls that are naturally dehorned. Or maybe the hornless or polled gene can be introduced so all cows that would otherwise be dehorned will be born polled.  Even though dehorning is not animal cruelty when it is done properly it still costs dairy farmers time and money.  Being able to eliminate the need to dehorn calves would represent a big savings for dairy farmers.

Watch the video from Bob-White Systems below to learn more about calf dehorning.

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