Highlights: What You Need to Know About the Economics of Dehorning

  • Disbudding at an early age (as early as 24 hours, but no later than 6-8 weeks of age) dramatically reduces the cost of the dehorning procedure, the costs associated with treating complications and the stress on calves. The earlier the age at disbudding the easier the procedure is on calf and operator.
  • Cost of disbudding at an early age using either caustic paste or a hot iron should run less than $5/head.
  • Producers electing to provide additional pain relief can have dairy employees perform a local anesthetic nerve block for less than 20¢/calf and administer anti-inflammatory medication for about 10¢/calf.
  • Use of polled sire semen can eliminate the need for disbudding/dehorning, but limited genetic potential and concerns about inbreeding has some producers incorporating polled sires only slowly into their breeding programs. The availability of polled sires with higher genetic merit is improving.
  • The new technique “gene editing” may in the future allow for laboratory creation of high genetic merit polled sires. Even if the technique is proven however it will likely take some years before such semen is widely commercially available.

The Economics of Dehorning

With increasing consumer interest in livestock welfare producers are naturally focusing on how to most efficiently implement animal care practices. In particular dairy farmers have in recent years been presented with a dizzying array of new information and technology related to the removal (and prevention) of horns. This webpage reviews this new information, particularly in regards to the economic aspects of dehorning. This page also links to the most useful resources on how to most effectively and efficiently deal with horns.

Benefits of Dehorning  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lists the advantages of dehorning/disbudding of cattle, the most important being reduced injury to human handlers and herd-mates. Hornless animals require less feeding trough space and lower the risk of interference from dominant animals at feeding time. Dehorned cattle are easier and less dangerous to handle and transport and exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors associated with individual dominance. While of less concern to dairy farmers, horns are the single major cause of carcass wastage due to bruising and dehorned animals may incur fewer financial penalties on sale. In beef cattle dehorning has been estimated to yield an average net return-on-investment of approximately $17 to $28 per head depending on the operation.

Dehorning on U.S. Dairies According to the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) 2007 dairy survey, 94% of dairies perform dehorning on their own facility, with the bulk of remaining dairies probably having it performed by contract heifer raisers. When performed on the farm USDA reported that 69% of producers choose the hot iron method, while 12% of producers choose caustic paste. When achieved by hot iron, dehorning was performed on average at 7.6 weeks of age. Because caustic paste is most effective early in life, producers using paste applied it on average at 2.7 weeks of age. Unlike beef breeds, the naturally hornless or “polled” or trait has not been highly selected for in the dairy industry. Dairy cows that are polled alleviate the need for dehorning, but for reasons discussed below the number of dairy herds or cows currently carrying the polled gene may be less than one percent.

Age of Dehorning and Labor Costs Most producers are already aware that early removal of the horn buds (disbudding) before they have attached to the skull at about 6 to 8 weeks of age dramatically reduces the cost of the dehorning procedure, the costs associated with complications and the stress on calves. Disbudding may in fact be performed during the first 24 to 48 hours of life. Both the American Veterinary Medicine Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners recommend that disbudding be performed at the earliest age practicable.

Estimates of the cost of disbudding/dehorning vary greatly depending on the technique used and employee costs. Industry and university estimates have varied between $2 and $20 per head depending on whether employees, veterinary technicians or veterinarians perform the work, the method used and the age of the calf. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) annual cost of milk production survey, puts an average hourly dairy employee labor + benefits rate at about $16/hour. Based on this cost, two employees working together (disbudding either by caustic paste or hot iron) can perform the procedure for less than $5 per head.

Caustic Paste Disbudding Caustic materials can be applied to the horn bud as a paste with a wooden applicator, by paste syringe or a moistened stick. In all cases the caustic material (such as potassium, sodium or calcium hydroxide) destroys the specialized skin tissue which produces the horn. The cost of paste is inconsequential compared to the cost of labor, typically between 10¢ and 15¢ per calf. In the hands of some producers caustic paste has worked well. Oregon State University strongly recommends that paste be applied during the first two days of life to minimize procedure failure and offers an instructional poster with pictures English and Spanish. One refinement to paste application shown in the poster includes marking the margins of the horn bud with an indelible marker to prevent over-application of paste. The use of udder balm or petroleum jelly to limit spread of the paste as demonstrated in this video has also been recommended.

Hot Iron Disbudding By far the most common method of disbudding in the U.S. is application of a hot iron. Equipment cost will vary depending on whether a butane/propane, corded electric or a battery pack model is selected and will range from about $75 to over $400. Similarly operation costs will depend on whether or not the unit is electric or butane/propane heated. In any case, operations costs will be measured in the cents per calf and the equipment should provide years of service. A video demonstrating hot iron dehorning is available from Dairy Australia.

Pain Relief Techniques In order to minimize stress on their calves, producers may elect to apply additional pain mitigation techniques. In a recent review, the authors were unable to locate research demonstrating that pain relief following invasive procedures like dehorning and castration was associated with improved production outcomes. Still multiple studies prove that the pain relief decreases stress in calves following dehorning. Producers may choose to administer pain relieving drugs based on personal preference or in order to meet corporate customer expectations.

The pain relief technique most commonly recommended for hot iron disbudding is administration of a local lidocaine anesthetic to block sensation to the horns, similar to the Novocain® local used in your dentist’s office. This cornual nerve block takes less than a minute to perform, lasts about 20 to 30 minutes and can easily be taught to dairy employees by the herd veterinarian. The drug cost for the lidocaine can run as low 20¢ per calf, but it will require a prescription from the herd veterinarian. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension has webpage with links to a video demonstrating the local nerve block (along with sedation and meloxicam medication) and other dehorning management and teaching tools. When recommended the cornual block is virtually suggested for hot iron rather than caustic paste disbudding. There seems to be little welfare advantage of using the nerve block for caustic paste application and in fact may actually make the procedure more painful.

The second most commonly recommended pain mitigation method is administration of anti-inflammatory drugs prior to the disbudding. In the wake of numerous dairy research trials with a variety of medications, meloxicam has emerged as the most commonly recommended pain relieving drug. Because of its exceptionally long half life, a single dose of meloxicam has been shown to mitigate post procedure pain for up to 48 hours. The meloxicam pills can be crushed and dissolved in the milk replacer or a method of administering these small pills to calves has also been described. More expensive formulations of the drug can be given intravenously or intramuscularly.  The American Association of Bovine Practitioners recommends an oral dose of 1 mg/kg and a pre-slaughter withholding time of 21 days. At a current reported cost of a bottle of one thousand 15mg tablets, treatment with meloxicam should run less than 10¢ per calf. As is true with lidocaine, meloxicam is a prescription drug and has to be obtained through the herd veterinarian. Administration of meloxicam is equally applicable for both caustic paste and hot iron disbudding since it will decrease inflammation long after the lidocaine block has worn off.

Polled Genetics and Dairy Economics?

Naturally hornless (“polled”) dairy cattle been recorded in U.S. breeding records for over one hundred years. As described in this video How Polled Works (from a company specializing in polled genetics) the polled trait is a dominant one, meaning that all offspring from a true polled (homozygous) sire will also be hornless. Use of true polled sire semen would obviously eliminate the need for disbudding or dehorning and there has been much discussion about the feasibility of switching the country’s dairy herd to predominantly or wholly polled genetics.

A much publicized 2013 Perdue University study suggested that elimination of dehorning costs through the incorporation of polled sires would be economically advantageous to producers. The study did not however account for differences in the genetic potential of polled versus horned sires leaving the question of net economic benefit unanswered. A subsequent 2014 Iowa State study examined the effect of dilution of genetic merit by using the currently commercially available polled Holstein sires. The authors concluded that depending on the rate at which polled sires were incorporated, over a period of ten years the Net Merit (NM$, predicted transmitting ability) of a herd could be decreased by approximately 5% and 25%. These concerns about limited availability of polled sires, as well as potential inbreeding has lead some high profile dairies in Colorado, Illinois and California to adapt polled genetics only slowly into their breeding programs. With increased interest in the polled trait however the pool of polled sires with higher genetic merit has been rapidly expanding .

Is Gene Editing the Future of Dehorning?

While as yet unproven, another technology which potentially might address the difference in genetic merit between polled and horned sires is gene editing . The process is an advanced laboratory technique which allows for the precise cut-and-paste deletion and insertion of specific genes has already been used to create a breed of more productive salmon. Also using the technique, two live artificially polled bull calves were created by replacing the horned gene with a polled gene. These calves are currently being cared for at the University of California and if they prove healthy and fertile could pave the road for future laboratory creation of high genetic-merit polled sires. Even if the technique is proven however it will likely take some years before such semen is commercially widely available.