Disbudding and Pain Management for FARM v4.0

For more complete information on Preweaned calf management, disbudding, pain management and the FARM v4.0 Program go to: https://nationaldairyfarm.com/farm-animal-care-version-4-0/

All calves are disbudded before 8 weeks of age.

The term disbudding refers to the destruction or excision of horn-producing cells before skull attachment, while dehorning involves the excision of the horn after skull attachment. Time of attachment varies, but scientific literature indicates that this occurs around 8 weeks of age.

Acceptable methods for disbudding to destroy the horn producing cells include:

  1. electric/gas iron or
  2. application of caustic paste. Caustic paste should be applied within the first few days of life and is less effective and discouraged after the calf is 2 weeks of age. Additional management for caustic paste disbudding, such as protecting treated calves from rain and limiting social interactions to ensure paste only affects the horn bud area, are considered best practice.

Cows that have either been missed or have developed scurs should be monitored and, if deemed necessary, dehorned. Any attempt to permanently remove the horn after 8 weeks of age is considered a surgical procedure and should be performed by a licensed veterinarian.

The use of polled genetics may be an option for some producers depending on the breed of cattle on the dairy or the genetic diversity of polled genetics.  

Pain mitigation for disbudding is provided.

All methods of disbudding and dehorning cause pain. AABP recommends that pain management be considered the standard of care during all dehorning and disbudding procedures. Producers are encouraged to work with their Veterinarian of Record (VOR), who is best able to develop the most appropriate, individualized pain management protocol for their operation.

Local Anesthesia

Use of a local anesthetic mitigates the immediate pain associated with disbudding and dehorning and provides up to 5 hours of post-procedural analgesia. There are a variety of local anesthetic techniques including:

  • Cornual nerve block
  • Horn bud infiltration

The local anesthetic protocol should be determined and prescribed by the VOR. Federal law restricts the use of local anesthetics to use by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian.

Systemic Pain Relief

The use of injectable, topical or oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be used to provide additional and longer lasting pain relief. The type of NSAID used should be prescribed by the VOR.

  • Meloxicam has been shown to mitigate post-procedure pain for up to 48 hours after a single dose.
  • Topical NSAID applications at the time of disbudding or dehorning is practical in most instances.
  • Oral, IV or IM administration is difficult although further study is warranted to determine its effectiveness.

There are currently no approved drugs in the U.S. for use in cattle with an indication to provide analgesia associated with dehorning pain. Regulations under the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994 (AMDUCA) allow extra-label drug use provided a valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR) exists and the drug selection process, records and withholding times outlined in the AMDUCA regulations are followed. When it comes to pain mitigation, the prescribing veterinarian must assign an adequate meat and milk withdrawal interval (WDI) in instances of extra-label drug use (ELDU) as prescribed by AMDUCA. The best resource for veterinarians to find an appropriate WDI is the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, or FARAD.