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Disbudding – don’t leave it too late!

Disbudding - Don't leave it too late!

Sophie Anderson BVSc


Dairy calves are thick on the ground here in Dannevirke and we are very busy with debudding! The optimal time to debud calves is when they are 2-6 weeks of age so horn buds are removed before they have a chance to attach to the skull, this makes the job quicker and reduces the risk of thermal damage and regrowth. This means for most operations we now recommend debudding in batches to ensure that the calves are done at the optimal time.

It is a legal requirement to provide local anaesthetic when disbudding or dehorning an animal of any age. Now local anaesthetic is mandatory the decisions to make are around methods of restraint and providing additional pain relief. The traditional method of restraint is by head bail or purpose made calf crate, the use of chemical restraint (sedation) has become more and more popular due to being less stressful on the calves and makes the operator far more efficient. The sedative will last for 1-2 hours depending on dose given, this allows for a steady recovery. Using sedation means that a veterinarian must be present and calves should ideally be fasted for 4-6 hours prior to the procedure. Additonal benefits of sedation mean ear tagging, ring castration, initial vaccination, removal of extra teats and other individual treatments can be performed with ease.

The local anaesthetic block now legally required will last an average of 2 hours, however the pain associated with debudding extends far beyond this which is why administration of additional pain relief by a long acting anti-inflammatory has been proven to have a positive impact of growth rates following the event. The gold standard is to provide all calves with chemical restraint, 7in1 vaccination, and a long acting anti-inflammatory to ensure they bounce back quickly. This is demonstrated by the significant reduction in blood cortisol and pain related behaviours shown in the graph below (Dairy NZ, 2020)

There is the option for our clients to complete a training programme to receive a legal accreditation title to be authorised to perform the local nerve block used for disbudding on their claves. A theoretical and practical component is required along with annual reauthorisation, if this is something that you might be interested in please contact your clinic for further information.

Disbudding off beef cross calves from the dairy industry is strongly encouraged prior to rearers selling on milk weaned calves. Commercial beef operations should identify and have any horned calves debudded as early as possible eg. At calf marking. These prompt actions will mean less chance of regrowth, quicker healing and less stressful than dehorning as yearlings. An effort is being made to encourage selective breeding of polled beef cattle to reduce this issue.


Please contact your local clinic to discuss your situation with a veterinary so we can plan any remaining disbudding for you this season.

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