It"s been shown that disbudding young calves before they reach three weeks of age is the least stressful and painful time to do this practice, as the horn buds are not yet attached to the skull. After the horn buds attach to the skull, at around two months of age, dehorning to remove them is required.
While various methods of disbudding and dehorning are available, all of them usually involve some discomfort or pain during and after the procedure.
Because dehorning can cause pain, the American Veterinary Medical Association and other groups advise using procedures and practices that reduce or eliminate the pain, including approved medications.
Pain mitigation is something the public has come to expect and should be a priority for every dairy producer.
However, the adoption curve is slower than it should be.
Hans Coetzee, veterinary researcher at Kansas State University, says a survey of north central and northeastern United States dairy producers showed that only 12.4 percent of dairy producers use local anesthetic nerve blocks and only 1.8 percent provide systemic analgesia (painkiller) at the time of dehorning.
Similarly, only 18 percent of Wisconsin dairy producers report using local anesthetics prior to dehorning.
"These data are consistent with the results of the recent 2009 National Animal Health Monitoring System survey that reported that only 17.7 percent of U.S operations report using analgesics or anesthetics during the dehorning procedure," Coetzee says.
"The cost associated with providing preemptive analgesia contributes to the reluctance of producers to adopt these measures especially since there is no perceived economic benefit for doing so," Coetzee adds. "It may also be difficult for producers and veterinarians to determine if analgesic compounds are effective because cattle may not show overt signs of pain and distress. Thus determining the need for analgesia and the dose, route, duration and frequency of drug administration in cattle can be especially challenging."
Yet, these are things that dairy producers need to consider.
"California has already placed restrictions on bovine tail docking, so I think it is important for bovine practitioners to have this on their radar," says Suzanne Millman, of Iowa State University.
"Producers and practitioners can pause and think through the healing process and tailor these considerations for their particular situation," Millman adds. "No one wants to see an animal in pain or ill."
Products that can be administered at the time of dehorning include local anesthetics, such as lidocaine and bupivicaine.
Coetzee says these are effective against immediate incisional pain (acute pain), but have little or no effect against chronic pain associated with inflammation. Lidocaine only lasts for three to four hours.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as meloxicam ketoprofen, aspirin and flunixin, are not effective against immediate incisional pain, but are effective against chronic pain associated with inflammation, Coetzee explains.
"Studies show that a well-placed cornual nerve block that is allowed sufficient time to take effect can reduce and sometime eliminate an acute (more than one hour) increase in serum cortisol after dehorning," he explains.
"Accurate placement of the cornual block requires training," Coetzee says. "Complications include inadvertent intravenous injection or incorrect placement of the block with respect to the anatomical location of the nerve."
Producers should be trained by a veterinarian to perform a cornual nerve block.
Geni Wren is editor of Bovine Veterinarian, a sister publication of Dairy Herd Management.