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Castration, disbudding and tail docking - not nice but necessary! - Overview

Disbudding of calves and kids means removing the very early developing horn bud to prevent horn growth. It’s a procedure carried out routinely for management reasons.

It is good practice to disbud all calves. Horns can cause a lot of damage to other cattle, and to stock handlers, particularly when they are yarded or penned or transported. Think about having naturally polled cattle instead.

  • Horned cattle should be penned separately for transport.
  • There are advantages in disbudding goat kids too. Goats with horns can use them to good effect on other goats, and horns get hooked up in fences.
  • Horn buds begin to appear around the time of birth or within a week or so of birth.
  • Disbudding should be carried out while the buds are still very small, well before they become too large for a disbudding iron to fit over.
  • Feel around the poll of young calves daily from a few days of age to check the horn buds, and disbud as soon as they form small hard caps.
  • For most calves the best age for disbudding is from 3 to 6 weeks of age.
  • Goat horns often appear earlier than calf horns and they grow faster, so check kids daily from birth.

Hot iron

  • The most humane method is use of a custom-made circular hot iron to cauterise the tissue around the base of the bud using a local anaesthetic for pain relief. For calves, the use of local anaesthetic for disbudding will be a legal requirement from 1 October 2019.
  • The procedure should take only a few seconds, but it’s painful, skill is required and applying a hot iron to the head requires firm restraint of the animal.
  • Don’t be too forceful, especially with goat kids. Because of their smaller size and thinner skull they are more prone to injury from excess force or deep burns.

Don’t use caustic paste

  • There are caustic chemicals on the market for disbudding.
  • These are applied to the horn bud to cause chemical burns to permanently damage the horn-producing area.
  • The caustic chemicals are easily rubbed onto sensitive skin (like the youngster’s mother’s udder or other calves!), and in wet conditions they can be washed down the face, causing painful burns.
  • The risks generally don’t justify use of caustic pastes for disbudding.

Disbudding using a scoop

  • Another method of disbudding calves is by amputation using a metal scoop.
  • The disbudding scoop is a special instrument designed to gouge out the small horn bud and its base.
  • There is bleeding, more chance of infection than with cautery disbudding and it is a painful procedure.

Get a vet to do it!

  • For the animal’s sake, disbudding is best carried out by a veterinarian using a gas or electric cautery iron with appropriate pain control (a strong sedative, pain killer and/or local anaesthetic).
  • The few dollars extra per calf or kid is a small price to pay for a painless and relatively stress-free procedure with a quick recovery and no complications such as infections.
  • Employing a vet also means that castration, tagging and any minor surgical procedures like removal of extra teats can be carried out painlessly at the same time.

Disbud early

  • It is much more humane to disbud calves than to dehorn older cattle. The greater size and strength of older animals make them much more difficult to restrain for dehorning, there is more bleeding and a greater risk of infection.
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