When it comes to raising replacement heifers on a dairy farm, there are some duties that just can’t be avoided. Dehorning calves is one of these duties. Okay, I guess technically you could raise a cow with horns, but we all know what a bad idea that is.
In fact, sometimes we luck out and a calf ends up being born polled. In that case, obviously we don’t have to go through the process of dehorning her.
That being said, there are expensive and inexpensive ways to dehorn a calf. The expensive way is to wait until the calf is a yearling heifer, crowd her behind a gate and chunk them off with the antique keystone dehorners. Granted, you might not lose any money out of pocket, but how much time does that take?
How much weight does the heifer lose over the next several days as she recovers from the pain and blood loss?
The inexpensive way is to dehorn the calf before she is weaned. And if you really want to do it right, learn how to do a nerve block so the calf doesn’t feel it and never misses a meal.
Here’s how I strongly encourage all of our clients to dehorn.
At least once a month, routinely, all calves older than 2 weeks on the farm that haven’t already been dehorned should be done. I wait until they are 2 weeks old because it is at this point that their susceptibility to neonatal diarrhea (calf scours) becomes pretty low.
As for the local anesthesia, I always, without exception, give a local nerve block called a cornual block, prior to dehorning the baby calf. The technique is surprisingly very easy. So easy, in fact, that I can teach a client to do it in one calf.
Simply locate the outside corner of the calf’s eye and press your finger into the groove about 1 inch behind it. Deposit 3 milliliters of local anesthetic under the skin in that groove and wait a couple minutes for it to diffuse to the nerve. I like to numb all of the calves at once, then in the same order they were given the anesthetic, dehorn them.
Injectable local anesthetics, like lidocaine, are prescription drugs so consult your veterinarian if you are interested in acquiring some to perform your own cornual blocks.
As for the actual procedure of dehorning, I prefer to use a butane powered hot iron. I like to allow the burner to get very hot, then locate the horn bud and apply a good bit of pressure with the hot iron. You know when the cornual blocks works because the calf doesn’t flinch after the iron is applied to her head. Occasionally, though, the calf lets me know that there is still some feeling there.
I burn through the skin all the way down to the skull. I don’t routinely apply anything to the wound as it will dry and granulate in a week or so no matter what you do to it. Infection rates are extremely low, most certainly under 1 in 1,000.
I’ve introduced dozens of dairy farmers to this method and none of them have ever gone back to wrestling the calf and scooping out the horns. The calves don’t miss a meal and don’t experience any shrink. And best of all, it’s better for your bottom line.