Milk and dairy product merchandisers are prodding producers to switch to polled breeds at the encouragement of animal welfare groups who believe dehorning to be inhumane.
In August 2014 Nestle, North America’s largest dairy producer, said it had signed an agreement with the non-governmental organization World Animal Protection requiring the Swiss company to adopt guidelines that “seek to minimize pain for farm animals by using veterinary practices that reduce pain, or avoiding the practices in the first place by different animal husbandry practices. An example would be the dehorning of cows.”
More recently General Mills, which makes Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Yoplait yogurt, adopted a new animal welfare policy that states, “General Mills supports the use of polled genetics breeding programs to promote polled or naturally hornless cattle, thereby eliminating the need for dehorning.”
In a 2013 study, researchers from Purdue University concluded selection of polled cattle presented no additional expense compared to dehorning. The scientists estimated the cost of dehorning at $7 per animal and of selecting semen from a bull without horns at an additional $8. Factoring in the additional cost of treating a calf after dehorning and running a computer simulation, they concluded a producer could spend an additional $7.50 per head for polled genetics and still break even.
Dr. Scott Poock, a University of Missouri Extension veterinarian who was raised on a dairy farm and told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor he is passionate on this issue.
He said when cattle were dehorned when he started in private practice 28 years ago.
“We didn’t do much for analgesia or pain control when I left practice,” Poock said. “Most guys had turned to dehorning calves when they’re much younger, and providing some kind of analgesia or local anesthetic to decrease the pain.”
He said the university has some polled cattle in its herd, and there are more polled bulls in AI tests.
“It will take time to get all polled cattle,” Poock said.
Although the polled gene is dominant, if a calf carries the horned, recessive gene, even if it’s bred to a heterozygous polled bull and 25 percent of its offspring, will be horned. Therefore, even as the herd is bred for the polled trait, there will still be some need for dehorning.
Producers dehorn cattle to minimize injury or trauma to other cattle, Dr. Jeremy Powell, University of Arkansas Extension veterinarian, told OFN.
“When they’re eating out of a feed bunk all their heads are together, and cattle will inherently push and shove on one another in that situation because they’re aggressive for the feed that’s in the bunk,” he said, adding it’s also for the safety of workers.
Powell said one method that involves minimal trauma is the use of a caustic paste that’s applied to the horn bud. “It causes the tissue to necrose around the base of the horn; the horn falls off, and the tissue scabs over and is fine,” he explained.
The calf cannot be exposed to rain or allowed near other animals for six hours, and the paste cannot be used in calves over 8 weeks of age. Other, more traditional methods include the use of a hot iron to cauterize the cells around the base of the horn, or cutting off the horn using a “scoop dehorners.”
“There is going to be some trauma involved in that, because you’re removing a piece of skin and the horn from the calf’s head, so you have to be careful with how you do it and also concerned with flies,” Powell said. “There are steps you can take to minimize secondary infection.”
Movement toward polled dairy cattle has been gradual.
“I get a few people calling for them, but the genetics are not there with the rest of them,” Joe McClellan, a Willow Springs, Mo. dairy producer, told OFN. McClellan milks polled Holsteins along with registered dairy cattle from other breeds, and also occasionally sells breeding stock. He said while there are bulls that can match horned production, the bulls overall do not rate as well on the American Holstein Association’s Total Performance Index (TPI) chart, which measures such variables as feed efficiency, somatic cell counts, the calving ease of daughters and the fertility index.
However, McClellan said, the polled Holsteins “are fast catching up, because the good ones are worth some money,” and added anecdotally – based on what his wife and 7 year old daughter say – they’re of easier temperament.


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