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J Dairy Sci. 2011 Nov;94(11):5724-34. doi: 10.3168/jds.2011-4443.

The dehorning of dairy calves: practices and opinions of 639 farmers.

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Department of Animal Science, University of Padua, Legnaro (PD), Italy.


Calf dehorning is a routine husbandry practice on dairy farms that is justified by safety reasons for stockpersons and by a reduced risk of injures among herdmates. In Europe, the practice is regulated by law but little is known about the methods applied or about farmers' attitude to the practice. This study aimed to broaden the existing information on dehorning in dairy holdings by processing results of 639 farm questionnaires gathered in a traditional dairy area of northeastern Italy. Farm questionnaires were stratified according to herd size, type of housing, and productive purpose of the predominant reared breed(s). Chi-squared tests were performed to verify the significant association between a given practice or opinion and the 3 classification factors, and odd ratios were calculated. The outcomes of the study showed that dehorning was carried out on 80% of the surveyed farms, and disbudding was the method reported by all the interviewed farmers. Hot-iron cauterization was the preferred method for disbudding (91%). On average, disbudding was performed at 32 d of age and it was more likely in farms with ≥60 cows than in smaller dairy holdings (OR=7.3). The practice was carried out mainly by farm personnel, but the intervention of a veterinarian was far more likely (OR=5.98) on farms with ≤30 cows than on larger dairies. Most farmers (70%) stated that they had not received any specific training on how to perform disbudding. Fifty-two percent of the respondents reported that disbudding causes prolonged postoperative pain (≥6 h) but pain management was rare. Only 10% of the farmers used local anesthesia before cauterization, and 5% of the farmers provided calves with postoperative analgesia. Consistent with these results, farmers indicated limited willingness to pay the cost of analgesia or to call a veterinarian to perform the procedure. This low motivation of the respondents toward the adoption of practices able to reduce pain related to disbudding might arise from their insufficient knowledge on long-term negative effects of early painful experiences on behavior and handling of dairy heifers. Farmers in favor of keeping horned cows were asked about the reasons for not carrying out dehorning. Aesthetic motivations (54% of respondents) and lack of time (24%) were the main reasons cited. Moreover, a large majority of these respondents (74%) reported no difficulty in handling horned cattle.

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