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Disbudding in calves – looking ahead to the future

Are we thinking proactively in regard to farm animal mutilations and doing what is best for the welfare of calves?

The start of 2020 saw a review by the British Veterinary Association on the current management procedures for tailing and castrating lambs (BVA, 2020). Synergy Farm Health had introduced the “Three Rs” (reduce, refine, replace) concept in flock health plans back in 2019, in regard to tailing and castration of lambs, ahead of the BVA announcement. The Sheep Team at Synergy have also held three client evenings on the topic which were well received. Animal activists targeting dairy clients, such as Project Calf, are sadly becoming more common. It is time for us to be questioning our routine management procedures for all species and have robust reasoning behind the need for them, for example disbudding. So, how can we be proactive for our dairy and beef clients on the issue, in this case when disbudding calves?

At the time of writing, all EU member states permit disbudding but some countries have very strict and particular rules. Hungary, for example, has the strictest ruling by only permitting disbudding on the first day of life using a bloodless method (Spoolder et al., 2016). Certain other countries (eg the Netherlands) only permit disbudding if the veterinary surgeon administers the local anaesthetic and only if carrying out disbudding of calves below a certain age.

The three Rs concept is a method developed by Russell and Burch (1959) to establish if we can reduce, refine or replace the need for animals in experiments, to ensure animal suffering is kept to a minimum or avoided where possible. If this concept were to be applied to current farm animal mutilations, we must consider how calf disbudding looks when the three Rs principle is used.


Can we reduce the need to disbud calves? The first question is whether all the calves on the farm need disbudding? It is important to note that disbudding is routinely performed on safety grounds for both animal and human safety. So, with that in mind, replacement heifers will require disbudding to continue to provide a safe environment, and it is essential that these animals are disbudded rather than dehorned, which is a much more stressful and painful procedure.

However, could bull calves entering the veal industry be left horned? In the Netherlands, it is common practice to finish veal calves at eight months which does remove the need for disbudding. Currently in the UK veal and beef industries, farmers can finish calves as early as 12 months of age. The systems achieving this are finding that the horns are not causing injuries to the animals. Nevertheless, not disbudding poses a significant safety concern for the animal if desired growth rates are not achieved, and animals are subsequently finished a few months later than planned due to poor growth or ill health.


In 1954, the use of an anaesthetic when disbudding calves became law under The Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Act, with the exception of during chemical cauterisation. Ensuring the disbudding procedure is as refined as possible is very important which may be done by undertaking on-farm training or refresher sessions. The RSPCA welfare guidelines recommend that calves are disbudded under the age of two months, but ideally as soon as the horn bud can be felt.

In 2019, the Red Tractor Farm Assurance scheme added the requirement to administer NSAIDs to any animal likely to experience pain during or after a procedure. This continual refinement of the disbudding procedure is essential to continue to maintain our high welfare standards in the UK. Allowing time for the local anaesthetic to diffuse and take effect is key. Following this, ensuring proper maintenance of equipment of both the hot iron and calf crush is important.

Knock-down disbudding is a useful refinement of the process. It enables large numbers of calves to be disbudded in a short period of time and is much less stressful for the calves. Animals are heavily sedated using an intramuscular injection of xylazine. Once sufficiently sedated, local anaesthetic and an NSAID are administered before disbudding takes place. The main caveat for this method is that a vet is required to sedate the animals. Several EU countries require the presence of a vet for local administration or for the whole disbudding procedure, so this would not be a concern in those countries.

With regards to refining our disbudding procedures, should we as veterinary surgeons be pressuring for a ban on disbudding by chemical cauterisation? RSPCA welfare guidelines strongly recommend against its use, and generally veterinary surgeons do not feel comfortable disbudding a calf by chemical cauterisation, instead preferring to use a hot iron (Figure 1).

FIGURE (1) Disbudding of a replacement dairy heifer under local anaesthetic and NSAIDs using the hot-iron disbudding method Peter Hansford


Replacing the need for disbudding could be started through considered and informed breeding decisions with the use of polled bulls. This may, however, hinder the genetic advancement being made on a farm; therefore, bull selection should be done with care. It is important not to introduce inbreeding or narrowing of the genetic pool within a herd. One colleague has hypothesised that in 50 years we may be carrying out genetic engineering, enabling the “horned” gene to be deleted, thus retaining the merits of the bull’s genetics and replacing the need for disbudding – only time will tell on that!

However, if we focus on the present day, a prominent UK bull stud is marketing one particular polled bull which carries 2 polled (dominant) genes which will result in all its progeny being polled. It also has very good figures: £PLI 617 +728kg milk, fertility index +5.7 and great Type Merit. Thus proving at this current moment in time, you can get the best of both worlds. Perhaps this will be the start of the polled bulls of the future without the need for genetic engineering.


This article aims to provide reflection on our current procedures, potentially resulting in the 3Rs principle being introduced to dairy and beef herd health plans in regard to farm animal mutilations. This will help to put the farming industry one step ahead of the regulations to ensure we are thinking proactively rather than reactively.




Sheep castration, tail docking, and pain management. [Online]


Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Cattle. Defra Publications, Admail 6000, London, p. 22

Russell, W. M. and Burch, R.


The Principles of Humane Exper-imental Technique. [Online] Methuen and Co Ltd, London, UK

Spoolder, H., Schöne, M. and Bracke, M.


Initiatives to Reduce Mutilations in EU Livestock Production. Wageningen UR Livestock Research (Livestock Research report 940), p. 86

Beth Reilly

Beth Reilly, BVetMed, PGDipVCP, MRCVS, graduated from RVC in 2017 and completed both the Cambridge and RVC Junior Clinical Training Scholarships in Production Animals. She worked at Synergy Farm Health before moving to the RVC in 2020, working as a teaching fellow in Clinical Farm Animal Management.

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