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Pain management at dehorning

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 18 January 2016

How much progress have we really made?

One of the more anticipated pieces of forthcoming data in the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System’s 2014 dairy survey is information on the current use of analgesics and anesthetics at dehorning.



That data is due to be released this month. This latest survey could validate other recent datasets that indicate the industry has made significant advances in the use of pain relief during dehorning.

The 2007 NAHMS dairy survey indicated 17.7 percent of U.S. operations that dehorned calves used analgesics or anesthetics during a dehorning procedure. That would align with other datasets during that time period that indicated about 18 percent of U.S. farms were using pain relief.

However, since then, educators, veterinarians and welfare auditors have more strongly encouraged the use of pain management at dehorning.

For example, in 2013, NMPF began collecting data through its Farmers Assuring Responsible Management or FARM Program about the use of analgesics during disbudding. The industry-wide animal welfare program, which now enrolls 94 percent of the U.S. milk supply, does not mandate analgesics to be utilized but recommends dairy farmers consult with a veterinarian as to what pain management might be appropriate for use on their particular farm.

In 2014, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners suggested veterinarians work with their clients to “advance” local anesthetic use at dehorning. No doubt the association released the guidelines to help its members provide direction to farmers who would be consulting with them about what is appropriate on their farms.


NMPF’s current FARM program guidelines ask farmers if: “Calves are disbudded at 8 weeks old or earlier and with appropriate use of analgesics or anesthetics.”

In 2013, the first year data was available, 181 of 314 audited farms in the FARM program, or 57.6 percent of farms, affirmed they followed NMPF’s guidelines. The most recent data from 2015 shows a small percentage increase in usage, with 4,888 of 7,660 farms or 63.8 percent of U.S. dairies reportedly following the same guidelines.

But the NMPF data is not decisively able to determine an increase in pain management at dehorning due to the wording of the guidelines in question. The FARM program question asks about both the timing of the dehorning/disbudding procedure and the use of pain management at the same time. NMPF’s technical writing group has recommended the question be revised in the next program update in 2016 to ask both of those questions separately.

In 2015, a Progressive Dairyman poll showed 55 percent of 526 farmer respondents said their calves received pain relief at dehorning. The results of this non-scientific poll are certainly not conclusive either.

When the newest NAHMS data is released, the industry will soon know for sure how much the practice of providing pain management at dehorning has advanced. It could be one of the shining achievements the industry could hold up as an example of improvement in animal care practices.  PD