"Disbudding" of calves and kids means removing the very early developing horn base to prevent horn growth. It's a procedure carried out routinely for management reasons, but it's potentially very painful, so it should be carried out as humanely as possible.
- 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.
- It is much more humane to disbud calves and kids than to dehorn them when they are older.
- 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.
- From 1 October 2019, it will be an offence to disbud or dehorn cattle without the use of local anaesthetic for pain relief, and pain relief is recommended for goats too!
- It's good practice to disbud all calves that you buy in to hand rear unless they are of a naturally polled type. Animals should be disbudded in preference to being de-horned.
- Horns can cause a lot of damage to other cattle, and to stock handlers, particularly when cattle are yarded or penned or transported.
- 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 4 to 6 weeks of age.
- Fibre goats and angora goats are not usually disbudded, but there are advantages in disbudding dairy goats.
- Disbudding makes goats easier to manage when they are yarded and handled frequently. Goats with horns can use them brutally on other goats, and horns can get hooked up in fences.
- Dairy goat horns often appear earlier than calf horns, especially in males, and they grow faster, so check kids daily from birth.
- Generally the best age for disbudding is between a few days and 2 weeks of age.
The most humane method is use of a custom-made circular hot iron to cauterise the tissue around the base of the horn.
The use of pain relief is recommended best practice, and for calves, will be a legal requirement from 1 October 2019.
The procedure should take only a few seconds, but it's very painful, skill is required, and applying a hot iron to the head requires firm restraint of the animal.
It is really important not to use undue force and not to keep the iron on too long. This is cruel and damaging. Extreme force can even result in fractured skulls.
Goat kids require particular care. The skull of goat kids is much thinner than that of calves.
- Because their skulls are smaller and thinner than calf skulls, goat kids are more prone to injury, including brain injury, from excess force or deep burns.
- If the initial burn is not adequate or doesn't cover the diameter of the horn bud, then the site should be allowed to cool before heat is reapplied.
- As well as being shallow, the horn bud of kids is more diffuse and a wider piece of adjacent skin (5mm around each horn) has to be cauterised to prevent regrowth of horn material (scurs).
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 use of caustic pastes for disbudding is not recommended. The caustic chemicals are easily rubbed onto sensitive skin (like the youngster's mother's udder or other calves or kids!), and in wet conditions they can be washed down the face, causing painful burns.
Disbudding using a scoop
Another method of disbudding calves (not usually goat kids) is to gouge out the horn bud using a metal scoop specially designed for the purpose. The scoop can cause a lot of bleeding, and there is more chance of infection, so it's a procedure best left to a veterinarian.
The most humane method
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.