Proposed Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Livestock at Saleyards and Depots

Runner Up 2014 Sentient Student Essay Competition


The Effect of Dehorning Management and Genetic Selection on the Welfare of Food Producing Cattle



By Tanya Burton




It was like a horrific crime scene; blood was splattered on the walls and smeared on the trucks floor as the cattle attempted to regain their footing. In the heat of the day, these cattle had had large bleeding wounds carved into their skulls before being transported to our property. They were restrained and conscious during the procedure to feel the full spectrum of pain, fear and distress. You may be surprised to hear that is an accepted management practice to remove horns and surrounding skin without pain relief in many countries including Australia. Too often we take our basic human rights, such as freedom such inhumane treatment, for granted. As a veterinary student, I’m entering a profession with the responsibility of advocating and protecting the health and welfare of animals and therefore give them a voice. There has been progressive movement toward concern for animal welfare as their sentient capabilities and requirements are realised. This includes improved consumer support and demand for welfare friendly animal products. Unfortunately, animals used for food production, experimentation or entertainment continue to be the victim of unethical and inhumane treatment and conditions under human care. An example of this is continuing to breed horned cattle that will ultimately require dehorning. This invasive and painful procedure is routinely carried out to manage the risks of horns causing injury to human and animals as well as damage to equipment, meat and hide quality. This short term solution can have negative effects on the health, wellbeing and productivity of the animal and damage reputations and economics of the Australian cattle industry. As long as horned genetics remains in food producing herds, the requirement for dehorning will continue however welfare conditions can be improved. I aim to investigate dehorning age and analgesia recommendations and genetic alternatives to current dehorning practices to improve animal welfare.


Horns are the single biggest contributor to carcass bruising which costs the Australian beef industry more than $22.5 million each year and a substantial loss of valuable meat (Prayaga 2007). With a rapidly increasing human population that needs to be fed, this unethical waste of valuable animal derived protein should not be ignored (Koknaroglu & Akunal 2013). It is therefore understandable why the lack of horns is economically and ethically important. There has been continual focus and investment in the development of strategies to improve productivity and profitability of food producing animals. So why are horns being allowed to damage profit margins and compromise animal welfare and safety?


Many farms use disbudding and dehorning techniques however if not enough horn producing tissue is damaged or removed, the horn may regrow. There is strong scientific evidence to show that dehorning is painful at any age and that production losses such as decreased weight gains can continue for up to 15 weeks (Stafford & Mellor 2011). Dehorning is often done at same time branding, implanting, ear notching, ear tagging, castration and the administration of treatments causing both psychological and physiological impacts. A study carried out by Bunter (2013) found that mortality rates of 2.1% occur during these combined procedures. Furthermore, the majority of mortalities were linked to calves that were also dehorned compared to those who were not. Dehorning older cattle is an even larger welfare issue as horns develop bony attachment increasing from around two months of age (Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al. 2012). Due to the cornual diverticulum, bone and horn is removed during dehorning resulting in an opening in the frontal sinus of the skull. Not only does the procedure require more labour it also inflicts more pain and bleeding and is related to long healing times, sinusitis, fly strike and mortalities. For this reason, it is recognised as an act of veterinary science to remove horns from cattle over 6 months of age in Australia (Newman 2007). Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) also recommends dehorning calves as young as possible, under six months old (Australian Veterinary Association 2004). This is not always possible on extensive farms with wide calving intervals and infrequent and incomplete musters resulting in older animals being dehorned (Prayaga 2007).

Veterinarians are able to provide sedation, local anaesthetic nerve blocks, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for improved handling and analgesia during and after the procedure. Protocols including analgesia has been shown to minimise negative effects on calf performance and is being recommended and even enforced in other countries (Welshans 2013). This option is often seen as economically unrealistic for large farms due to increased costs, time, labour and the requirement for veterinary prescription drugs to implement (Stafford & Mellor 2011). With a lack of perceived value, it will be hard to change the culture of farmers that are comfortable with the cheap traditional technique that has been used for generations. This is where continued research and education from veterinarians, industry and media is very important to improve welfare conditions and maintain profitability. I believe that all farmers should be strongly encouraged to use analgesia and dehorn at younger ages, preferably less than two months old. There should also be analysis of humane and effective animal handling and restraint techniques as well as continued worker training and fatigue prevention. Farmers should ensure procedure timing and equipment hygiene and maintenance is appropriate (Newman 2007).


Another viable option is the use of genetics to dramatically increase the number of polled cattle in Australia from 47% (Prayaga 2005). Producing naturally polled cattle is a welfare friendly and long term solution that no longer fuels the continual need for dehorning. The removal of horn related production, processing and mortality losses will open up the opportunity for profitability and better welfare conditions. This option is strongly supported by large stakeholders such as Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and AVA (Prayaga 2005, Australian Veterinary Association 2004). Selection for the poll gene can be done phenotypically by the farmer or through the use of genetic testing for accelerated and targeted results. Fortunately through the use of a breeding plan, polled cattle are relatively simple to maintain in the herd because the polled gene is dominant over horned (Reynolds & Pryce 2011). Some breeds such as Fresian’s, have a high prevalence of horns even though poll genes haven’t been significantly correlated with important dairy production traits. This results in a smaller poll gene pool to select from with relatively less elite breeding stock which may result in more line-breeding and decreased production index and merit values. A solution to this would be breeding for heterozygous polled cattle using either superior cows with polled bulls or polled cows with superior bulls. As the prevalence of polled cattle increases there will also be an increase genetic pool selection ability and quality that will not cause a loss in genetic gain (Reynolds & Pryce 2011). The potential for initial losses in genetic gain needs to be well understood for acceptance and breeding plan compliance. For this to happen, additional industry education of the benefits, poll breeding strategy implementation and the genetic and phenotypic aspects of the trait is needed. This may increase involvement from Hereford, Brahman, Santa Gertrudis and Limousin breed associations to expand Australia’s current polled population (Prayaga 2005).


It’s also important to consider ethical concerns of public acceptance and perception of seemingly unnatural genetically modified herds that lack horns (Windig 2011). Similar selection practices have however modified other cattle traits such as milk yield in Fresian’s and in other animal breeds such as the large phenotypic variation in dogs. There is also evidence of better saleability of polled and dehorned cattle over horned cattle which supports the acceptance of polled cattle (Stafford & Mellor 2011). The acceptability of the profitable breeding goal when incorporating poll genetics is the more significant concern of the cattle industry (Windig 2011). A large proportion of the current research has been funded by levies on farmers, processors and livestock exporters. Levy contributors are encouraged to highlight research, development and extension priorities which provides a crucial opportunity for voicing the significance of investment toward animal welfare (Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee 2014).  Heightened interest in the humane removal of horns from cattle will push industry to invest more in relevant research and education. I believe that the financial input contributed to this topic is justified as it not only has a significant impact animals but also on human health, wellbeing and food supply. Veterinarians also play a critical role in educating stakeholder’s welfare considerations, industry requirements and clarifying benefits, consequences and misconceptions. Conducting further research on performance comparisons and practical breeding strategies as well as assisting farmers with the development of goals and action plans (Prayaga 2005).


Any improvement in the humane treatment and recognition of animals as sentient beings is a move in the right direction. There needs to be more pressure on industry to dehorn cattle at a younger age, implement analgesia and to use polled genetics. Further research and education is also essential to boost proactive participation of the cattle industry to decrease the expression of horns in cattle herds. It is unethical to continue dehorning cattle when polled genetics are available to provide a long term solution that improves welfare for these production animals.




Australian Veterinary Association 2004, ‘Policies and Positions: Dehorning of cattle’. Viewed 28th September 2014 from:


Bunter K, et al. 2013, ‘Factors associated with calf mortality in tropically adapted beef breeds managed in extensive Australian production systems’, Animal Production Science, vol 54, no. 1, pp. 25-36.


Koknaroglu H, Akunal T 2013, ‘Animal welfare: An animal science approach’, Meat Science, vol. 95, no. 4, pp 821-827.


Newman R 2007, ‘A guide to best practice husbandry in beef cattle branding, castrating and dehorning’, Meat & Livestock Australia Limited, Sydney.



Prayaga K 2005, ‘Genetic options to replace dehorning of beef cattle in Australia’, Meat & Livestock Australia Limited, Sydney.



Prayaga K 2007, ‘Genetic options to replace dehorning in beef cattle - A review’, Australian Journal of Agricultural Research, vol 58, no. 1, pp. 1-8.



Reynolds M, Pryce J 2011, ‘Polarising the Future Potential of Poll in the Australian Dairy Industry’, Dairy Research Foundation, vol 18, pp138.


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee 2014, ‘Industry structures and systems governing

levies on grass-fed cattle’, Viewed 28th September 2014 from:


Schwartzkopf-Genswein K, et al. 2012, ‘Code of Practice for the care and handling of beef cattle: Review of Scientific Research on Priority Issues’, Viewed 29th September 2014 from:

Stafford K, Mellor D 2011, ‘Addressing the pain associated with disbudding and dehorning in cattle’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 135, no. 3, pp 226-231.


Welshans K 2013, ‘Effects of castration, dehorning studied’, Feedstuffs, vol. 85, no. 14, pp. 14.


Windig J 2011, ‘Genomic Selection: Alternatives, Risks and Benefits’. Proceedings of the First Low Input Breeds Symposium.