How to disbud dairy calves efficiently, easily and painlessly

Read our guidance on how to disbud (dehorn) dairy calves efficiently, easily and painlessly.

See also: An 8-step guide to disbudding a dairy calf

Why should you favour disbudding instead of dehorning?

Horned cattle are at risk of hurting other stock or humans. Dehorning is the removal of the formed horn; it should never be a routine procedure and should be avoided if possible. Dehorning involves cutting or sawing horns and other sensitive tissues under local anaesthetic. It should only be undertaken by a vet, never by a stockperson and only if it is necessary for the herd’s welfare. Dehorning of older animals should be avoided by disbudding them as calves. Disbudding is preferable to dehorning as it is less stressful for the animal. Disbudding is a common procedure used to make cattle management easier and safer.

Horn bud

Calves have horn-forming tissue at birth, which, if left, will produce a horn. When the calf is born, this bud of tissue is free-floating in the skin and is not yet attached to the skull. Over time, this bud will weld itself to the skull creating a connection between the horn and the frontal sinus. This connection enables the horn to develop. The speed of this development can vary depending on the animals and breed but generally takes place during the first two months of life.

Optimal age

Calves should be disbudded as soon as the horn bud can be easily felt. The smaller the horn buds, the easier and quicker the procedure will be. Therefore, it is recommended to disbud between 2–4 weeks of age, or certainly, when calves are younger than 2 months old.

Disbudding options

  • Heated iron under local anaesthetic is the most effective and preferred option to disbud calves
  • Caustic paste is not recommended, and in some countries, it is illegal. It can spread into the eyes or onto other calves causing painful burns. It should only ever be used in calves younger than 1 week old

Heated iron

Thermal disbudding blocks the blood vessels that irrigate the horn bud preventing its development. Cauterisation is done using a metallic or ceramic iron heated to a very high temperature (500–700°C). It normally causes little bleeding and therefore limits infectious risks. Some irons have interchangeable tips of varying dimensions to adapt to the size of the horn bud. For young calves, tips with a 15–20 mm diameter are enough. A ceramic head dehorner must be reserved for animals younger than 3 weeks old.

How to manage the pain?

One option for restraint to alleviate stress due to handling is to ask your vet to administer a sedative. As a minimum, a local anaesthetic should be used for disbudding, which numbs the horn bud for several hours. Using an anti-inflammatory as well will reduce inflammation which can persist for at least 9 hours after disbudding. All cattle medication is available on prescription from the farm vet. They must be written in the medical record. Their conditions of use and effectiveness are available in the table below but can vary between countries (done by a vet only in some countries).


Sedative (1520 mins before disbudding)

Local anaesthetic (1015 mins before disbudding)

Anti-inflammatory (1520 mins before disbudding)


Calms the calves and relaxes the muscles. Sedated calves are easier to disbud as there is no head shaking

Stops the painful nerve impulse by anaesthesia of the corneal nerve

Reduces inflammatory response and acts against post-disbudding pain

How to administer

Intramuscular injection in the neck

Subcutaneous injection in the corneal nerve area

Subcutaneous injection

Active ingredient




Polled bulls

Using polled bulls, where available, will reduce the number of animals that need to be disbudded. Talk to your genetics supplier about using polled genetics across some or all of your herd.

Dehorning older animals

Dehorning of older animals should be avoided by disbudding them as young calves. However, if animals are purchased with horns or if a horn re-grows and dehorning is required, pain relief must be used. Ideally, a vet should do it, and in some countries, this is a legal requirement. If dehorning is deemed necessary, it should be done in spring or autumn to avoid flies or frosts. Following the procedure, the animal should be given appropriate pain relief. The wound should be protected from contamination by such things as grass seeds, hay or silage until the hole has scabbed over.

Is the area numb?

Test the area around the outside of the horn bud with a needle; if the anaesthetic is working, the calf will not flinch. A drooping eyelid is a good indication as the nerve also supplies the muscle of the eyelid but be aware it is not a foolproof test.


The technical content of this factsheet was produced in association EuroDairy, Idele and AHDB. This leaflet is based on a French leaflet ‘Ecorner les jeunes bovins efficacement, facilement et sans douleur’ developed by the RMT Bien etre Animal ( This document has been created as part of the AccEC project (CASDAR no. 1273).

Useful links

Dairy calf management

Calf management guide

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Calf management guide, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.

Podcast: Can sedation help reduce stress at disbudding?