Insights Livestock

How Farms Work: The decision to dehorn cattle


An often-debated subject is the topic of removing the horns of cattle. While PETA may tell you that dehorning is an extremely traumatic and painful procedure (while I don’t disagree with the latter), if done properly, you can significantly reduce the amount of acute pain the cattle feel after the dehorning process. Polled Livestock are livestock without horns in species that are typically horned. The polled trait in cattle is dominant to the horned genes, and is more common in beef cattle than dairy breeds. Dehorning is often required for dairy cattle due to size restraints for the cattle in the milking and feeding areas where the cattle are held in place with neck restraints.

Why dehorn?

Farmers still dehorn cattle because the advantages often outweigh the disadvantages. Some reasons farmers may dehorn their cattle:

  • Horned cattle can pose a danger to the farmer and equipment, as well as other animals.
  • Horned cattle can often be more aggressive than those without.
  • Horns can sometimes grow back into the head, causing injury.
  • Horned cattle may get their horns stuck in trees or fences, which may result in death.

Reports from southern states consistently find that polled or dehorned calves sell for $1.50 to $2 more per hundred weight than horned calves. This is thought to be because horned cattle typically have a negative effect on the rest of the herd they are fed with, as the horns can cause injury and bruising, especially during transport.

Are they any disadvantages or reasons not to dehorn?

Though horns certainly offer their advantages, several animal-rights groups have brought forward several of the reasons below to not dehorn cattle:

  • Cattle with horns held in pastures are more able to defend themselves against predators.
  • Dehorning takes time and costs money.
  • Horns are useful in hot climates for temperature regulation.
  • Dehorning without anesthesia is very painful to the animal.

How is it done?

There are several different ways to dehorn cattle which should be done by a few months of age, before the horns become fully grown. This is because older cattle show more stress after the procedure than when they are less than a few months old. As the cattle age, the horn bud attaches to the skull making the procedure more stressful on the animal.

CAUTERIZATION: Cauterization is the process of using a heated ring placed around the horn to kill the growth area of the horn. This should be done when the calves are just a few weeks old before the horns grow too large. The sooner this process is completed, the less stress and pain is inflicted on the calf. The area is often numbed with local anesthesia before cauterizing.

CUTTING VIA KNIFE: Another option for dehorning when the calf is a few months old is using a closed knife, like that of a pair of bolt cutters that are placed around the horn and pulled together. This cuts the small horn off and prevents future growth.

CONVEX DEHORNER OR GIGLI SAW: For even older calves, a dehorner with two convex blades are pushed together to cut the growth ring and the horn off. A Gigli saw is a flexible wire saw used to cut the horns of cattle with horns that have grown too large to be used with the convex dehorner.

CAUSTIC PASTE: One of the more recent revelations to dehorning is what is known as caustic paste, which is used on calves less than two days old, in which a paste is applied around the horn bud which kills the growth cells. The disadvantage to the paste is that it can cause injury to the animal’s eyes or can burn its skin if used in rain.

TRADITIONAL HAND SAW: This method can be used on older calves with large horns, but it does cause a large amount of stress with a risk of infection and blood loss leading to death. The animals must be watched closely as weight loss is likely.

The best option if starting your own herd is to select cattle with polled genetics. Every now and then you may find yourself with a horned calf and then the best option is to dehorn soon after birth. The practice of dehorning is still a beneficial practice from a welfare and economic standpoint.


Ryan Kuster, the force behind the informational and insightful YouTube channel How Farms Work, is a beef and crop farmer based in Wisconsin. He created his channel in 2012 to help show non-rural people how farming is done in the Midwest.

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