Cattle Dehorning And Alternatives In The EU

This study, on the improved methods for animal-friendly production, in particular on alternatives to the dehorning of cattle was written by the Directorate General for Health and Consumers, Animal Health and Welfare Directorate.
calendar icon 22 November 2010
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Alternatives To Dehorning


In Europe, there is a growing support by citizens for the development of more welfare-orientated production systems and, therefore, a need to ensure that there is solid scientific data available to underpin policy development.

The general objective of this study was to look in depth into alternatives to the dehorning of cattle in order to evaluate different strategies to promote these alternatives.

To achieve this, the following was carried out:

  • an analysis of the current situation regarding dehorning in the member states
  • a review of the scientific literature and data available on the effect of dehorning and on the alternatives to dehorning i.e. keeping horned cattle or polled cattle
  • a proposal for final recommendations and points of action taking into account the opinion of the main stakeholders on the way to improve animal welfare regarding dehorning

The current situation regarding dehorning

A large survey was carried out in member states looking at the dehorning of cattle, and the use of polled cattle. Contributors included universities, national farmer's associations, cattle breeders associations, farm veterinarians and practitioners. In each Member State, specific questionnaires were submitted to experts of three cattle categories: dairy, beef, and suckler herd.

After data collection, a quantitative analysis was been carried out in order to produce figures on dehorning practices and on the prevalence of disbudding/dehorning for each cattle category in Europe and in four EU macro-regions (North, Centre, East and South).

At the same time, in order to get a better understanding of the farmer's views towards the disbudding/dehorning methods, the alternatives and their expectation, motivation or proposal, 94 farmers from three countries (ltaly, Germany and France) participated in nine focus groups (three per country). With this sample, exchanges with farmers from a large diversity of production systems including dairy cows and suckler herd, conventional and organic farms, flat lands and mountain regions were possible.

Based on the results obtained during these surveys, it was concluded that keeping hornless adult cattle (dairy or suckler) is the most frequent situation in the Member States (respectively approx 80 per cent and 60 per cent) and it also leads farmers to different choices in terms of housing and management of the animal. Fattening beef are less frequently hornless (approx 40 per cent). The main farmers' motivations to keep hornless cattle are the higher risk and more severe consequences of injuries for themselves or for the animals kept with the horned cattle. However other local particularities (i.e. market, breeds etc) also effect their choice.

Disbudding with a hot iron is the most frequent method used, particularly for dairy farmers, but there is obviously a lack of training and it is difficult to use a pain releaser. Disbudding is preferred by farmer as a less stressful and painful procedure for the animal.

An alternative to this could be using bulls of high genetic value.

Benefits and drawbacks of dehorning and alternatives to dehorning

There is a lack of scientific studies into the relevance of horns for cattle. Arguments for and against dehorning/disbudding relate to human safety, animal welfare, ethics, economics, cultural aspects and product quality. While dehorning has stronger negative welfare effects than disbudding, any method of disbudding/dehorning causes distress and pain, which should be alleviated as far as possible, preferably through a combination of sedation (in animals not used to handling), local anesthesia and anti-inflammatory treatment.

For keeping fully horned cattle, fewer specific housing and management recommendations are available and further research is needed. However, these recommendations based on scientific studies and practical experiences, emphasise that dimensions of feeding places, of passageways, general space allowances and availability of cubicles should be increased while many other adaptations to the housing conditions are also favourable (e.g., avoiding dead-end situations, use of feed barriers open at the top, cubicles with escape possibilities to the front). Furthermore, the management of situations where there is a high risk of competition (e.g. feeding and of course integration of unfamiliar animals) is a key factor. As these recommendations include higher minimum recommendations than those for hornless cows, keeping horned adult cattle can induce economic losses in combination with higher investment costs and farmers need additional support.

The other alternative to dehorning i.e. introducing polled cattle was assessed. The natural absence of horns is determined by a single gene, with polled being dominant over horned. The frequency of the polled gene varies between breeds from O to 100 per cent and in the main used breeds (i.e. Friesian Holstein or Charolais) a few number of helerozygous bulls are available. Many problems still need to be solved such as low breeding values, presence of Scur alleles (the horned gene) or negative traits. Classic introgression and breeding programmes to increase the frequency and genetic merit of polled animals takes a long time. Computer simulations showed that with the new genomic selection tools, high genetic merit polled bulls can be bred within 10 years.

Consultations showed that farmers are only interested in using polled bulls if they have a high genetic merit, and breeding companies are starting to develop breeding programmes in Holstein and Charolais cattle. In German Fleckvieh breeding programmes are well under way but some limited negative trails appeared and further investigations are needed to understand whether it is due to inbreeding or linked to the gene.

For most stakeholders, dehorning in itself is not a major ethical issue but reducing pain during disbudding / dehorning is an important issue to be addressed. lt was put forward that there is a balance, in terms of welfare, between the risk of injuries of penmates during transport, the way of housing (loose is preferable to tie stall) and the dehorning. Most stakeholders agreed that disbudding young animals with pain releasers (less than 2 months old) is preferable to dehorning.

Polled cattle appeared as the way forward for stakeholders and representatives of breeding companies confirmed the availability of polled bulls and the major breakthrough linked to genomic selection. But many of the stakeholders had concerns about the risk that polled cattle would completely replace horned cattle in the future and this might be associated with some detrimental effects. Additionally most stakeholders support the importance of a free choice for farmers to keep horned animals or to use polled animals, so that both options should be available.

Conclusion and final recommendations

Based on the findings of the project, it was finally recommended to restrict dehorning to emergency cases and to take initiatives to improve disbudding practices especially by better training and enhanced possibilities for farmers to use pain releasers. Keeping polled cattle and keeping horned cattle are two alternatives to dehorning in the future and policy decisions have to take into account the need of a balance between these two options. Assuming that high genetic polled bulls will be available in coming years, it is then advised to monitor the consequences, in particular in terms of the possible detrimental effect on the animals themselves and on the possibility for farmers to keep on rearing horned cattle. As keeping horned adult cattle is rare, it is further suggested to support farmers who, by keeping horned cattle, can suffer economic losses due to higher costs and research on the housing and management of horned cattle.

Current dehorning methods in member states

This work package had the following objectives:

To estimate how many cattle are dehorned or not, and how dehorning is practiced across the European Union.

To analyse farmer's altitudes towards dehorning practices vs. horned animals.

Survey of current dehorning practices.

Data from the survey showed that in Europe, 81.5 per cent of dairy, 35.8 of beef and 62.5 per cent of suckler cattle are currently dehorned. Regardless of cattle category the percentage of dehorned animals is the highest in Northern Europe.

The overall prevalence of polled cattle is very low, particularly in the dairy cattle population «1 per cent). The percentages of polled beef and polled suckler cattle are a little higher than in dairy (3.2 and 7.7 per cent) since polled beef breeds are raised in the North and the Eastern member states. Dehorning is performed primarily in cattle housed in free stall systems in order to reduce the risk of injures for the stockman and among the penmates as well as to allow easier handling of the animals.

Regardless of cattle category, when production systems were considered, results for cattle reared according to a conventional production scheme were similar to those of the total population, whilst less organic cattle are dehorned.

As a method of horn removal, disbudding is generally preferred over dehorning. The latter method is performed for work safety reasons mainly when there is a change in the farm housing system (from tie to free stalls) or on horn-injured animals. Hot iron is the most used method of disbudding. The use of caustic paste appears more frequent in the South and the Eastern member states. Dehorning of more aged cattle is mainly performed with the wire/saw method. Other instruments (guillotine, grinders and sheers) were reported only in specific countries. Some kind of anesthetic and/or analgesic treatment is administered to the animals prior to or after disbudding only in a small percentage of dairy (20), beef (35) and suckler herds farms (29). The use of drugs has shown to increase when dehorning is carried out on more aged animals (72 per cent of dairy, 52 per cent of beef and 41 per cent of suckler herds farms), since it is a more invasive procedure. However reported treatment protocols appeared to be inconsistent across countries.

In the large majority of European farms, the stockman is the main person in charge of calf disbudding. Horn removal from more aged cattle is performed with a frequent use of drugs and therefore it is more consistently carried out by veterinary practitioners, often with the assistance of the stockman.

Attitudes of farmers towards dehorning

This information was aimed at getting a better understanding of the farmers' view towards raising either horned or dehorned or polled cattle, the disbudding and dehorning methods and the alternatives.

To keep horns or not:

Many farmers chose to keep horns or not a long time ago and subsequently both animals and farmers are used to working like this, and housing and equipment has been changed accordingly. Working with horned or hornless animals is not just a detail. Instead it results from and implies different views on the farmer profession and on the practical and daily work with the animals. In favour of dehorning or keeping polled animals is farmer safety and animal safety (fewer consequences are often mentioned together, especially in connection to lose housing in dairy and suckler cows.

The local habit or norm plays also some role: "a modern cattle farm has dehorned animals". In favour of keeping horns, different aspects are combined: ethic considerations towards the animals (integrity of the animal, avoidance of pain and stress), a strong farmer-animal relationship, and assumed better health and product quality. Keeping cows with horns may also contain an ideological statement of resistance against rural industrialization. For farmers keeping horns with rustic cattle breeds in tied stalls (Salers in France. Rendena in Italy), tradition, aesthetic and tourism considerations are essential.

It is very important to underline that working with hornless animals is not necessarily related to a worse farmer-animal relationship. Many farmers place the animal at the centre of their work, but decide differently on the question of horns. Those that do dehorn or keep polled cattle also think that this is in the interest of the animals or even make their decision from animal welfare considerations. For the animals to be fattened, the situation towards dehorning is more variable and less discussed because of the shorter life span and the reduced safety risks.

The methods:

The farmers often dislike having to disbud or to dehorn calile, the procedure being unpleasant both to the animals and to the farmers. Nearly all the farmers interviewed disbud. They are used to the methods they apply and are mostly satisfied with them. More farmers use hot iron than caustic paste. Only few of the participating farmers use sedation or anesthetics and no one use analgesia. Some farmers would be interested to apply anesthesia if they were allowed to do it themselves. Others think that there is no need, as the operation is very quick. For most of the farmers, adult dehorning has to be avoided, as it is too stress- and painful for the animals. Even those practicing adult dehorning are critical and often prepared to move to disbudding. Most farmers think that the animals suffer during disbudding, but their views on the extent differ largely. They additionally mention that the handling itself puts the animals under stress.

Prospects for the future:

The majority of the farmers would not spontaneously change their practice as they are strongly motivated in keeping either horned or dehorned cattle. There are several kind of barriers to move from a dehorned cattle herd to a horned one : the farmers' working habits (some have been dehorning forever or for a long time), the representations shared by the farmers and by many operators (regarding loose housing and dehorning in modern herds for example), the housing facilities (space allowance per animal, equipment), the production system and the working organisation (calving outdoors or calving in groups for example), and the stockman's skills to manage horned animals.

These barriers are all the more effective because the topic of keeping horns and dehorning is rarely discussed. Some farmers are considering modification of their practice regarding dehorning in that they would disbud instead of adult dehorning, or disbud the animals at a lower age, and it meets what seems obvious for the majority to reduce animal pain.

Many farmers are rather interested in polled cattle which also have a high quality for production and reproduction. But mostly they do not believe that it is feasible at short notice. All state that they must have the right to choose which animals they would like to work with.

Training sessions and specific advice would be useful concerning either the management of a horned herd, or the good disbudding/dehorning practices (including handling, medication, etc.). Farmer concerns but also those of the operators such as veterinarians, technicians, transport drivers, etc., must be considered.

Future Development

This study had the following objectives:

To find solutions to overcome actual problems or limits to alternatives to dehorning.

To check acceptability of alternatives to dehorning by stakeholders.

To formulate final recommendations on alternatives to dehorning.

Further development of alternatives to dehorning

The objective of this was to find some viable solutions taking into consideration some alternatives that could be used in dehorning. Keeping horned cattle in loose housing could be considered at the farm level from two different points of view. From one point of view it could be considered that animal welfare is an important issue and in this case the measures that could be used at the farm level must be addressed on how to avoid social stress, how to considered the housing characteristics and what are the management techniques that must be put into practice in keeping horned cattle.

The social stress could be avoided by using practical knowledge about social behaviour in cattle breeding and how animals interact in their social structure. The design of housing facilities must be done in an appropriate animal welfare manner on all general characteristics, but also with respect from separate specialities(areas by cattle for walking, resting, feeding, milking etc.). Other practices of farm management could be successfully used in feeding, social behaviour or human-animal relationships.

From the other point of view the human safety must be viewed through the application of ways to reduce the risk by using appropriate handling facilities and housing systems and through the improvement of human-cattle relationship.

To develop and implement in parallel the two alternatives, keeping horned cattle and keeping polled cattle, would offer free choice for farmers according to their atitudes, traditions and husbandry conditions.

Stakeholders' conference

This project was aimed to contribute to the improvement of animal welfare in the EU based on research, studies and the development of some future strategies.

At the conference, it was agreed that in some techniques currently used in Europe there is same confusion and there is a need for consistency regarding the use of a specific technique. As a matter of fact, some unpleasant effects that seriously affect the animal welfare and the human health are faced right now.

Based on scientific results, it was concluded that the use of a specific technique less harmful to the animals and human health must be used throughout all European Union countries.

The use of the disbudding method was agreed to be an apprapriate way. Specific techniques must be accompanied by the use of pain alleviation like anaesthetic and non steroidal anti-inflammatory. At the same time a method like disbudding must be done by a trained operator who must have knowledge about anatomy and physiolagy of horns, the use of specific equipment and also to be legally in charge when using appropriate pain releaser.

The use of dehorning in European Union countries revealed the fact that in some cases it is performed by inappropriate personal and without the use of appropriate drugs. As a matter of fact it was concluded that this method must be done only in certain circumstances and only by appropriate personal. Some techniques accompanying the dehorning are already in use in some countries, like the use of sedation remains an open subject for researchers, farmers and veterinarians. At this conference it was concluded that sedation could be stressful for the animal and there is a need for further research in this field.

The use of a polled gene in cattle was a very exciting subject at this conference and generated implications in this debate from the point of view of scientists, farmers, industry and NGOs. After some presentations about new findings in research of polled gene in cattle and positive results experienced in practice (see the case of Charolais and Fleckvieh breeds) it was agreed that the use of this technique could be very useful.

The delegages agreed about keeping horned cattle in different farming systems. The decision of farmers on keeping horned cattle must not be affected by different factors from the chain. These farmers could be aware about the risk that they are facing and this could be a result of handling practice in some cases. At the same time they should be involved in improved animal welfare techniques by the use of appropriate housing and handling facilities and appropriate management techniques.

At the same time further research in this area could represent some realistic support for farmers. The realization of some materials like courses, good practices guides, information platforms etc. could contribute to the success of these alternatives.

The ethics in animal welfare was the last topic discussed at the end of this conference. All actions that could affect the animal welfare of cattle could be analyzed from an ethical point of view. Ethical considerations and atitudes of consumers also play a role when implementing alternatives to dehorning with regard to acceptability of products and farming practices in general or for product labelling.

Task 2.3.3. Final recommendations

Based on the findings revealed by the above studies a final report was created that contained recommendations and action plans with respect to alternative on dehorning. These recommendations were elaborated on both short and long term strategies.

On short term strategies the improvements in disbudding practices must represent an opportunity for European Union countries. On the one hand, the use of an appropriate Good Practices guide and training about dehorning in European countries will contribute to the use of appropriate techniques in an adequate manner; facts that could successfully improve the animal welfare and human safety. On the other hand the use of appropriale pain releaser by a trained operator could reduce the stress of animals being subjects of disbudding. In long term strategies the use of polled gene in cattle must be considered as an alternative to dehorning but the future of polled cattle is difficult to predict.

As dehorning in loose housing systems is largely predominant, few recommendations and information are available for farmers who want to keep horned cattle and further research is needed in order to provide valuable advice. Keeping horned cattle could induce economic losses in relation wilh higher investment costs and farmers need, in some cases, additional support. However, as there is a risk that the development of polled catlle induces the lack of horned available cattle, it is underlined that the policy choice must maintain a balance between the two alternatives and the freedom of choice for farmers.

November 2010
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