Dehorning cattle


This agfact is written to highlight the alternatives available to beef and dairy producers should they need to dehorn calves.

As with all husbandry practices, painless alternatives such as breeding polled animals should be considered first.

Should dehorning be required it should be done as young as practicable. There are a number of methods available to dehorn young cattle.

Why dehorn cattle?

Bruising costs the Australian beef cattle industry an estimated $20 million yearly. Extensive research in New South Wales and Queensland has shown that the single major cause of bruising is the presence of horns on cattle.

Dehorning is a short-term solution to the problem. In the long term, it is recommended that bruising and injury be reduced by breeding poll cattle.

Producers considering Cattlecare accreditation are required to dehorn all calves.

Compared with hornless stock, horned cattle:

  • can cause more severe injury to other cattle, especially in yards, feedlots and transport;
  • can damage hides and cause bruising which reduces the value of carcases;
  • are harder to handle in yards and crushes;
  • can be potentially more dangerous to handlers;
  • require more space at a feed trough and on cattle trucks;
  • are not as tractable and quiet to handle;
  • may suffer discounts at sale especially if they are destined for feedlots.

Minimising pain and stress

While dehorning has been an accepted part of cattle management for generations, greater awareness of animal welfare in recent years means that past methods can no longer be accepted without question. Dehorning by veterinarians using sedation and local anaesthesia is accepted practice in Europe and should be encouraged in this country where practical, such as in small intensively managed situations. Impracticality of alternatives should not automatically be accepted as justification for the continued practice of painful procedures, and producers need to take steps to minimise, whenever possible, the pain and stress that they inflict.

With the general community becoming increasingly concerned about animal welfare issues, dehorning is seen by many people as being cruel and offensive. The Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle describes what is considered to be best practice. The Standards and Guidelines are quite specific in relation to dehorning.

If dehorning is to be carried out it should be done as young as possible to reduce stress and minimise animal welfare concerns.

There will be enormous long term benefits from having the Australian beef cattle herd horn-free and avoiding the high cost of bruising and hide damage.

Although dehorning of cattle may seem offensive to some people, it must be appreciated that the temporary discomfort caused by the operation is completely outweighed by the long-term benefits of having the whole herd free from damage caused by horns.

Legal requirements

The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1986 defines dehorning as ‘the removal of the horn of an animal by methods which destroy or remove the keratin-producing cells and structures at the base of the horn’. Horn-tipping is also defined by the Act, as ‘the removal of the insensitive part of the horn of an animal’. State legislation makes dehorning of stock over the age of twelve months illegal without the use of anaesthetics. It may also be considered a cruelty offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

When to dehorn

Calves should be dehorned as early as possible. A tight calving pattern allows all calves to be de horned at a similar age, effectively and humanely. If the calving pattern is spread out, select groups of calves of similar ages for dehorning

It is best to dehorn calves at less than three months of age. They suffer less stress because they are more easily handled, and the preferred methods cause little or no bleeding, heal quickly, and do not result in any significant setbacks.

Cattle should be dehorned on dry cool days to allow the wound to dry quickly with the minimum risk of infection. The best time is late afternoon, when fly activity is usually low. Never dehorn cattle in wet weather, because the healing rate is decreased and the risk of infection increased.

Facilities and restraint

A well designed calf cradle will restrain the calf and ensure that dehorning can be done effectively while minimising stress and effort for both the operator and the calf. When a calf is restrained in a cradle, all marking and vaccination procedures can be done easily. Dehorning should be done last at marking time after calves are vaccinated and castrated.

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