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Dehorn Steers Before They’re Yearlings, Study Suggests

Yearling Holstein steers that were dehorned and then put on feed gained weight much more slowly than herdmates that had been dehorned as calves, research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Lancaster Agricultural Research Station has shown.

Producers who plan to sell Holstein steers should consider dehorning them at younger ages to minimize animal stress and drop in performance, according to Dan Schaefer, an animal scientist at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and Arin Crooks, assistant station superintendent at Lancaster.

Schaefer and Crooks studied the performance of a group of horned and previously dehorned steers after a grazing trial at Lancaster. The steers were put on feed in late November 2000 at an average weight of 835 pounds. Horned steers received a local anesthetic, then had their horns removed and blood vessels cauterized.

The steers were housed outdoors with a woodlot windbreak, and fed a diet of 80 percent corn, 10 percent corn silage, and 10 percent alfalfa haylage (dry-matter basis). After 43 days on feed, the previously dehorned steers averaged 899 pounds, for an average daily gain of 1.7 pounds. The newly dehorned steers averaged 876 pounds, for an ADG of 0.89 pound.

The animals sold as feeder cattle at $.7025 per pound. The newly dehorned steers sold for an average of $615.39 per head. If the cattle had not been dehorned, their average daily gain should have been the same as the previously dehorned cattle — 1.7 pounds. Their sale weight would have then been 911 pounds. After taking a 3-cent per pound discount for being horned, the cattle would have returned $612.65 — a difference of just $2.74 per head.

In other words, the November dehorning was barely profitable, according to Schaefer. The steers that had been dehorned in November gained at barely half the rate of the steers that had been dehorned earlier in life.

“I was surprised at the setback associated with dehorning,” Schaefer says. “I didn”t think there would be that much of a setback in growth of cattle at this weight, especially when they were being fed a high-corn diet.”

Cattle feeders prefer hornless steers for several reasons. Cattle will use their horns as weapons to establish dominance in a herd, and the horn jabs can create bruises that have to be trimmed after slaughter. Horned cattle are also difficult to catch in many restraint chutes, complicating vaccination, de-worming and other procedures.

“We have to live with horns in horned breeds, but we need to dehorn those animals at lighter weights and younger ages, when it can be done bloodlessly through chemical or hot-iron removal,” Schaefer says.

With more than 1 million Holstein cows on state dairy farms, Wisconsin sees a lot of Holstein steers produced each year. Holsteins are naturally horned, and so far, nobody has bred a line of “hornless Holsteins.” The genes exist in the cattle population to develop polled Holsteins, but it would require a good deal of time and effort, according to Brian Kirkpatrick, a cattle geneticist in the Department of Animal Sciences at CALS.