Technical information - General

Dehorning best practice


by Alan Laing DPI&F NORTHERN MUSTER ISSUE 20

BRAHMAN NEWS MARCH 2009 Issue #162

In 2007, MLA produced a booklet entitled “A guide to best practice husbandry in beef cattle – branding, castrating and dehorning.” It is authored by Ross Newman and is very well put together with appropriate photos and diagrams.

What is dehorning?

Dehorning is the removal of the horns from cattle. It is a labour-intensive, skilled operation with important animal welfare implications.

Cattle can have horns of different length, shape and size, but all horns are detrimental to cattle from a welfare and production perspective, and pose a potential safety risk to cattle handlers.

Tipping (removal of the insensitive sharp end of the horn) is not dehorning. It does little to reduce the disadvantages of having horned cattle, for example it does not reduce bruising, and tipped cattle can still be a danger to other cattle and handlers.

When to dehorn

The younger that cattle are dehorned, the better both for the calf and for the operator. Young calves suffer less pain and stress, have less risk of infection and have better growth rates. They are also much easier to handle and to restrain.

Dehorning and ‘The Cattle Code’

Sect 5.8.1. To minimise pain and injury all horned cattle should be dehorned as young as possible, preferably prior to weaning, and at a suitable time to reduce fly worry.

After dehorning, cattle should be inspected regularly for the first 10 days, and any infected wounds treated. In those situations where flies are a problem, a suitable fly repellent should be applied at the time of dehorning.

Facilities and equipment

Dehorning is best done in a calf cradle that allows good access to each horn site. Good restraint minimises the duration of the procedure and pain to the calf, reduces the risk of wound contamination and makes it easier for the operator.

Which dehorning instrument?

The dehorning instrument used will depend on the age of the calf:

  • hot iron – under two months old
  • dehorning knife – 2–3 months old
  • scoop dehorners – 2–6 months old
  • cup dehorners – 2–6 months old

Animals over six months old*

  • guillotine dehorners – horn tipping only
  • surgical wire – horn tipping only
  • tippers – horn tipping only
  • horn saw – horn tipping only

*Horn tipping only unless under the direction of a veterinarian.

Caustic dehorning chemicals must not be used. They can spread into the eyes if the skin gets wet.

Anatomy of a growing horn

Young calf

The horn grows from the skin around its base – at different rates with different breeds. The horn bud is usually free-floating in the skin over the skull base in calves less than about two months old.

As the calf gets older, this horn bud attaches to the skull bone and a small horn forms.

Older calf

After the horn bud attaches to the skull, the horn grows out from under the skin. It becomes a bony extension of the skull with the hollow centre of the horn opening into the frontal sinus. The brain lies directly under the frontal sinus covered by a thin layer of bone.

Dehorning after the horn attaches increases the risk of entering the frontal sinus and subsequent infection.

The key to successful dehorning

Applies to all methods. Because the horn grows from the skin around its base, you must remove or destroy a complete ring of hair (1cm wide) around the horn base. Check that the excised ring is wide enough because some horn will grow if the ring is not complete. A 1cm wide ring of hair is enough – any more will make a larger wound, cause avoidable pain, and delay healing.

The whole booklet is worthy of a place on any cattle property.

Contact Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)Ph: 1800 023 100