Dehorning calves: The How and Why

Our dairy farm, along with many others, dehorns calves at a young age.  Calves are born with horn buds that gradually grow in to large, pointy horns as the animal ages. As you might imagine, these full-grown horns have the potential to be quite dangerous. The horns are dangerous for the cow, other cows and the farmer; here is why:

1. Curiosity killed the cat (or cow). Cows are very curious creatures and always seem to be sniffing, licking and checking things out. It is possible for a cow to get her horn caught in something and this is never fun. When a cow does get her head or horn caught somewhere, she tends to freak out. The “freak-out” usually leads to more problems, destruction and possibly pain. This is a sticky situation we like to avoid.

2. Have you ever heard the term “boss cow”? Certain cows tend to dominate or “boss” around other cows. They do this by head-butting and pushing around the more timid cows. It is a natural cow behavior, but becomes dangerous if the cow has horns that could potentially bruise, pierce or further harm other cows.

3. While most cows are calm, docile animals, there are the rare few cows that are mean. If there is a cold-blooded killer on four legs, we do not want her to have horns that could harm anyone or any cow on the farm. It is a VERY RARE occurrence to have a mean cow, but if we do have one we try to sell her for slaughter as soon as possible.

In order to keep everyone on the farm safe, we dehorn all the calves at an early age. There are a few different methods of dehorning, but at our farm we use a caustic dehorning paste.

The jar of paste and a sharp pair of scissors is all you need!

The paste is applied on the horn bud and prevents the bud from growing. We have been practicing this method for about three years now and are very happy with the results. The paste is easy to apply and causes little to no stress on the calf. The paste should be applied when the calf is 0 to 7 days old; the earlier you apply the paste, the easier it is for all. Today I had three new calves to paste ranging from 0 to 3 days old. I made my husband take pictures so I could show you the procedure.

1.Put on your handy-dandy milking gloves. The paste is caustic and will burn your skin if contact is made. I have gotten paste on my skin before; this results in a bit of a burning sensation and before you know it, you have a big old scab on your skin. It doesn’t make for very lady-like hands, so I wear gloves and try to protect all exposed skin.

Handy dandy gloves

2. Restrain the calf. I do so by kneeling on top of the calf. This allows me to put a bit of pressure on the calf if she starts to squirm and move about. The picture makes it look like I am squishing the calf to death, but I promise my weight is on my knees.

3. Locate the horn buds. The buds can be found on top of the head and there is usually two, small cowlicks of hair over them.

4. Trim back the hair. I use a sharp scissors to trim back the hair and expose the horn bud. Sometimes I like to get creative and give the calves mohawks. I’m just kidding; ain’t nobody got time for that.

5. Apply the paste. Use a dime-sized amount of paste for each bud and apply in a circular motion.

6. Wait. The paste starts working immediately and most of the calves hardly even notice it. Some are more sensitive to the paste compared to others, so I will check up on the calves regularly throughout the day. If the calf is sensitive to the paste, she might rub and scratch her horn buds and possibly hurt herself. When a calf does begin rubbing and scratching, I will use a halter to restrain her head until the paste has dried. There have been only three occurrences that required me to restrain a sensitive calf.

It is really quick procedure that causes minimal stress on the farmer and the calf. Most calves hardly even know they have something on their head! The paste will eventually dry and a scab will form were the bud was located. Soon, the scab will fall off and the hair will grow back. Fellow farmers, if you are not using a caustic paste yet, please do! I highly recommend it as it causes much less pain and stress on the calf when compared to other dehorning methods.