Dehorning: Economically important, often overlooked

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Dehorning calves can have a tremendous impact on end-product quality and value of feeder or stocker cattle, says Mississippi State University Extension beef cattle specialist Justin Rhinehart. But while it might seem like one of the simpler management processes, producers seem to overlook it. According to the most recent National Animal Health Monitoring System report, Rhinehart notes, the percentage of calves marketed with horns, across all states evaluated, had decreased from 8.4 percent in 1992 to 6.3 percent in 2007. The authors speculated that a majority of this decrease was due to the use of polled genetics. However, another important finding was that fewer calves born with horns were dehorned on the operation.

Rhinehart says the 2007-08 NAHMS report also evaluated dehorning practices by geographical region. The data show that the South Central region, including Texas and Oklahoma, had the highest percentage, at almost 23 percent of calves born in 2007 that had or were expected to have horns. The East region had only 9.8 percent calves with horns but only dehorned 39 percent of those calves. The West and Central regions dehorned a much higher percentage of calves born with horns, at 70 percent combined.

The presence of horns has a consistently negative effect on the selling price of feeder calves. Reports from eastern Oklahoma, evaluating the sale price of more than 9,000 head, have shown that horned steers bring $3.23 per hundredweight less than their polled or dehorned contemporaries. Reports from the southeastern states estimate that polled or dehorned calves sell for $1.50 to $2 per hundredweight more than horned calves. Horned feeders sell for less because they require dehorning when they arrive to the feedlot and that negatively impacts their performance and health. If they are not dehorned, they decrease the value of the entire pen they feed with.

Rhinehart points out that the 2005 National Beef Quality Audit reported that 22.3 percent of the cattle passing through 16 packing plants had horns. This represented a reduction from previous reports dating back to 1991 but still does not meet the industry goal of reducing horns on fed cattle to less than 5 percent. A previous NBQA report estimated the loss due to horns on fed cattle to be $1 for every finished animal marketed. The reduction in value comes from the increased incidence of bruising, especially on high-priced cuts, that has to be trimmed from the carcass.

Dehorning replacement females and bulls is also very important, Rhinehart says. Horned cows can cause damage to other cattle during transportation and are often difficult to work in a handling facility. Non-fed market animals also experience a significant amount of carcass trim from bruising when they are managed or hauled with horned cattle.

The best time to dehorn calves is soon after birth, or better yet, select polled genetics to eliminate the need. But if neglected earlier, dehorning older calves can be beneficial when done properly. Rhinehart offers advice on when and how to dehorn cattle in his full “Stocker Cents” article.


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