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Why are cows and calves disbudded/dehorned?
Disbudding is the removal of the horn bud before it attaches to the animal’s skull (as young as possible after the horn bud appears which is usually by 2 months of age), whereas dehorning is removal of the horn once it has attached to the skull (calves older than 2 months of age and heifers). Disbudding and dehorning are performed to reduce the incidence of bruising and potential injury to other animals or people.
Disbudding and dehorning are performed by farmers or contractors, commonly without the use of anaesthetic or pain relief and results in significant acute pain. Dehorning involves using special equipment to cut through the bone and horn tissue – this is more painful than disbudding. If the calf is not effectively restrained, the procedure is even more stressful for the animal. Studies have also shown that calves not provided with pain relief compared to those who have, have reduced appetite for up to two weeks after the procedure, indicating ongoing pain is also experienced.
The RSPCA strongly supports the breeding of poll animals (animals without horns) to avoid having to perform the procedure. Where disbudding and dehorning is performed, the RSPCA believes that animals must be given an anaesthetic and pain relief. The RSPCA believes that appropriate pain prevention and/or pain relief must be given for any invasive procedure.
The dairy industry is encouraging the use of local anaesthetic and pain relief and for the procedure to be done on calves less than 2 months of age. The dairy industry recommends disbudding using heat cauterisation (also known as hot iron or thermal disbudding) as soon as the horn bud appears in preference to dehorning older calves. Disappointingly, based on a 2014 farmer survey, 22% of dairy farmers continue to dehorn calves 2-6 months of age with an alarming 10% of farmers dehorning calves older than six months of age. The dairy industry is not promoting the use of poll breeds to eliminate the need to disbud calves, which is the most cost effective and humane solution.
Beef cattle farmers (mainly in northern Australia where the predominant cattle breeds are horned) rarely disbud young calves but rather dehorn older calves, 6-12 months of age. However, the beef industry strongly encourages the use of polled breeds to avoid the need to dehorn and a poll gene marker test now makes it easier to identify breeding animals which will consistently produce polled offspring. This should increase the number of polled animals thereby reducing the number requiring dehorning.
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