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June 25th, 2019

Disbudding Calves

Cattle with horns pose risks to each other and also to human handlers. The gold standard way of eliminating this risk is via genetic selection and breeding to produce polled cattle; alternatively, calves can be disbudded at a young age. Dehorning (removing horns) older cattle is possible, but certainly not ideal and should not be a routine management procedure. Disbudding calves at a young age is therefore the most preferred, feasible and ideal management practice for mitigating risk and ensuring safety for animals and people. The most ideal time to disbud calves is between two and eight weeks of age. The younger the calves, the smaller the horn buds and the easier they are to remove. This also means all horn-forming tissue can be removed more effectively and the chance of scurs (abnormal growth of horn-type material after disbudding) occurring is minimal. The use of a gas burner for disbudding is not a new technique, however it is becoming very commonplace to perform the process with the use of sedation, local anaesthesia and pain relief. With increasing demand for higher animal welfare standards, most Victorian farmers are now using veterinarians to perform this practice. The process is quite simple and an effective system means everything goes smoothly without hassle and commotion. There is no need to individually restrain calves in crates or fight with them to get the disbudding iron on them. The use of local anaesthetic means the calves will not feel the procedure being performed, and the anti-inflammatory injection will provide pain relief for around 24 hours after the procedure.

  1. Calves need to be fasted for 6 hours prior to the sedation
  2. Calves will be sedated in pens in groups of 10-15 and in just a few minutes they will all lay down and be very sleepy
  3. The hair will be clipped from around the horn buds and local anaesthetic injected
  4. All calves receive an injection of Meloxicam (anti-inflammatory pain relief)
  5. A gas disbudder is used to burn around and remove the horn bud which is then sprayed with antiseptic spray
  6. Calves are checked for hernias and extra teats - any extra teats can be removed at this stage
  7. This time is also a great opportunity to ear tag, vaccinate, etc while the calves are still laying down
  8. Soon the calves will wake up and return to normal activity. They can be fed as per normal just a few hours after the procedure

Calves who are disbudded using the above process (sedation, anaesthesia and pain relief) have a 17% increase in growth rate in the two weeks after disbudding. On average, this can equate to an additional 1.4kg growth per calf.

Trials done in New Zealand show that the pain and distress in calves that are disbudded without any form of pain relief is significantly higher than in those that receive local anaesthetic and pain relief. Whist the graph doesn’t show the inclusion of sedation, it is likely that sedation decreases the stress even further.

We are confident that the protocol of using sedation, local anaesthetic and metacam is the best method currently available for the disbudding of calves.