January 15, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry - dehorning & castration

Cattle, farming, husbandry, dehorning (disbudding), castration

By Dr Clive Dalton

What use are horns ?

A horn very close to growing into an animal's
head which needs urgent attention.

Horns were designed by nature for cattle to fight with and for dams to protect their calves from predators. They damage hides, they bruise meat (which is not seen until the beast is skinned at the meat works) and they injure people. There is no place for them in today's farming systems.

Dehorning (disbudding)
The cauterising iron in action. Note how the firmly the calf needs to be held.

  • Disbudding means removing the small horn “bud” on a calf when it is soft and is best done before it is 6 weeks old.
  • When you do it really depends on the size of the horn bud. In Holstein Friesians the bud will be big enough long before 6 weeks, but in some Jerseys you may have to wait a bit longer.
  • The horn bud should be smaller than the cup on the end of the cauterising iron which can be heated by gas or electricity, so you get a complete cauterised ring around the base of the bud which is where the growth occurs.
  • The calf should be given an injection to block the nerves to the horn bud. Contact your veterinarian who may allow you to do this under their supervision. Your vet can also give the calf a tranquilising injection to further ease any pain.
  • The anaesthetic takes a few minutes to act so plan your work to consider this.
  • It is now not acceptable to do calves without anaesthetic as blocking pain is such an easy process.
  • To test to see if the iron is hot enough, try it on a piece of wood to make sure it will produce an even and complete circle of burning after 2-3 seconds of burning.
  • The calf must be held firmly in a headbail.
  • Inspect the calves after half an hour and cauterise any that may still be bleeding.
  • Do not use caustic paste, no matter how handy it is. It’s corrosive and the discomfort to the calf lasts a long time, and can be rubbed on to other animals – e.g. from calf’s head on to cow’s udder. It’s easy to end up with a badly disbudded calf.
  • In some horned breeds the small buds may be very pointed, and not round. Dexter calves are a good example of this, and the best practice is to cut these pointed buds out with the horn scallops and then cauterise the bud.
A pointed horn bud from a Dexter removed by scallops

  • This refers to removing any horns that will not fit in to the cup of a cauterising iron.
  • There is a range of tools on the market from debudding scoops to cut our small horns, to massive guillotines for mature cattle.
  • Do not use these devices without consulting your veterinarian because law changes involving the use of an anaesthetic in dehorning are about to change. Dehorning a large animal is a dangerous and painful operation that requires professional expertise.
  • The mature horn is part of a beast’s skull, and the hole on the end of a severed horn goes right inside the sinuses of the beast’s head next to the brain. Cattle can get infections and die.
  • To avoid this gruesome operation, never buy horned cattle and tell the stock agents and vendors why.
This is not 'dehorning'. These horns can still inflict damage.


  • The first question is whether you need to castrate at all? If calves are going for the bull beef market, then it’s not a consideration.
  • Testicles produce testosterone which is a great natural growth stimulant so the longer you delay the operation, the more free growth booster you get.
  • So there is a trend to delay castration to the point where you can just get the testicles through the standard rubber ring. There are now larger rubber rings and applicators available for delayed castration, but these have some animal welfare concerns.
  • For the animal’s welfare, calves should be castrated with rubber rings before they are 6 weeks old. Make sure this is done correctly so both testicles are left inside the scrotum below the ring, and the calf’s rudimentary teats are above the ring.
  • If you fail to get the testicles and only cut off the scrotum you’ll be able to feel the testicles under the skin as the animal ages, in front of where its scrotum was. You have created a “cryptorchid” or partial castrate, and this may fool some buyers as they’ll have a steer that behaves like a bull! You had better inform any buyers of your missed target.
  • With large testicles left under the skin, seek veterinary advice as the animal will need surgery to cut the testicles out.
  • On large cattle stations, calves are still “cut” (castrated) at about 2-4 months old by experienced operators using a knife. Many old stockmen argue that when the dog has eaten the removed testicles, they know there will be no problems with rogue bulls on the property!
  • Before you consider using emasculator pliers that crush the spermatic cord but doesn’t cut the skin, talk to your vet about its operation and effectiveness.
Animal welfare issue
Mixing horned and polled cattle that are not mates at saleyards and during transport can cause great pain and suffering to the beast being attacked. Even if they have been long-term mates, and sorted out their social order, the confined space does not allow the lower-ranked beast to escape - as seein in the picture below.

There is also a big financial loss incurred by the owner, as although the gore marks may not look much, once the slaughtered animal is skinned, there are massive bruised areas where the meat has to be condemned. The gored beast because of stress would also have very high pH in the carcass which would also be bad for meat quality.

The situation in the picture below shows very poor saleyard management and ignorance of the MAF Saleyard Code of Practice.

Terrified cow (with small horns) being gored by cow with large horns in saleyard pen.
The gored cow's hide and carcass meat will be ruined.
The cow's owner will suffer the penalty but it's the fault of the saleyard operators - who will not stand the loss.

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