Calf Dehorning/ Disbudding


Disbudding refers to the removal of the horn bud before it fuses with the skull. Once fused to the skull horn removal is called dehorning. While horns can technically be removed at any time the procedure is much easier and much less painful when performed within the first few weeks of life, when the horn bud is not yet attached to the skull. While there are many techniques available, this issue will only cover dehorning techniques applicable to calves less than 6 months old. Be aware that dehorning cattle over 12 months old is illegal unless performed by a veterinarian and can be considered an act of cruelty under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.


Why Dehorn ?

Well, we have all seen cattle that look like this

Horned cattle can cause significant injury to other cattle, bruising and damage to hides, all of which reduce the value of the carcass. Indeed, the Australian Beef Cattle Industry has estimated the bruising costs to be up to $ 20 million a year. Compared to hornless animals, horned cattle can also be difficult to handle through yards and crushes and may cause severe injuries to handlers.


When to dehorn ?

To reduce pain and stress dehorning should be done as soon as possible. The dehorning instrument used depends on the age of the calf.


  • Cautery disbudding or “hot iron” (1-8 weeks old) This is the preferred technique as the horn bud is not yet attached to the skull and there is thus less pain involved. Bleeding is also non-existent and there is no opened wound to deal with which makes the procedure easy to perform all year-round.
  • Dehorning knife (2-3 months old)
  • Scoop or cupp dehorners (2-6 months of age)


Removing horns with instruments such as axes and hammers is inhumane and illegal.

Management considerations:

Dehorning should be carried out on cooler days whenever possible to reduce bleeding and avoid fly strike. The calves should be restrained properly and instruments cleaned, sharpened (for knives and cupps) and disinfected between animals. A fly repellent or other fly deterrent techniques should also be used. Adequate pain relief should also be provided. Calves should be in good condition and healthy at the time of the procedure and stress minimised as much as possible.


While dehorning of calves can have enormous economical and welfare benefits it is painful to the animals and there is a growing concerns in the general community that the procedure is cruel and offensive. Therefore, while dehorning young calves can technically be done by farm hands, the use of sedation, local anaesthetic and pain relief under veterinary supervision can increase animal welfare and customer satisfaction.