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Preventing and managing ingrown horns for livestock welfare

Ingrown horns are a serious animal-welfare issue. They can injure livestock and cause unnecessary pain and suffering. Options are available for livestock owners to prevent ingrown horns and reduce their impact.

An ingrown horn occurs when the tip or the side of the horn pierces, aggravates or causes abrasion, injuring the animal's head. For cattle or sheep, this can happen when their curled horns grow and press against the side of their face or begin to penetrate the skin, eyes, cheeks or skull.

Benefits of dehorning

Wounds from ingrown horns can become infected and swollen and cause significant pain for the animal.

Horned livestock are more likely to cause injury to other animals in yards and during transport. Bruising and other injuries caused by horns can significantly reduce carcass and hide quality and value.

Horns damage yards, troughs and fencing and require more space during transport. They also pose a safety risk to livestock handlers.

Livestock that do not have horns:

  • are not at risk of ingrown horns
  • are less likely to injure other livestock
  • are less likely to injure themselves
  • can be easier to move and handle
  • cause less damage to farm infrastructure
  • require less space during transport
  • are easier to catch in a head bail for management purposes (e.g. application of ear and NLIS tags).

Horn management options

Breeding polled livestock

Using polled (hornless) breeders is the preferred and long-term solution. Breeding polled livestock removes the need for horn management activities and has other benefits. Ask your local beef cattle adviser about breeding for polled cattle.

Husbandry procedures

Husbandry procedures to manage or remove horns can be painful for the animal but are often necessary to improve herd welfare.

All horn-management activities must be undertaken in line with the Australian animal welfare standards and guidelines for cattle (PDF, 1.25MB). This includes:

  • that the procedure is completed by an appropriately skilled and experienced person using the appropriate tools and methods
  • appropriate pain relief is used if over 6 months of age (or 12 months at the first yarding).

Use effective but not excessive restraint to minimise movement and to enable the procedure to be done quickly and efficiently.

Equipment for restraining cattle should only be used:

  • for the minimum time necessary
  • with the minimum restraint necessary
  • if it is in good working order.

Read more about the methods for horn management and removal.

Tipping or trimming

It is important to keep horns trimmed or tipped by removing the insensitive sharp end of the horn, particularly where there is a likelihood for horns to become ingrown. However, tipping does not remove the risks of bruising. Tipped livestock can still create risks to other animals and handlers.

Read about trimming sheep horns.

Disbudding

Disbudding is the removal of the horn bud in young calves before the horn bud attaches permanently to the skull. Calves must be disbudded as young as is practically possible, preferably under 2 months or, if this is not possible, dehorned under 6 months of age.

Dehorning

Dehorning is the removal of the horn after it has attached to the skull. This is a labour-intensive procedure that must be performed by an appropriately skilled person.

If the horn has penetrated the skull, it should be trimmed in accordance with the advice of a veterinarian. If the injury is too severe the animal should be humanely killed.

Dehorning practices have become more widespread in recent years and most ingrown horn incidents occur due to improper dehorning. If all the horn-growing tissue is not removed, horns will grow deformed, often curling back towards the animal's head. Dehorning procedures must be performed by an appropriately skilled person.

Transport considerations

Before transporting animals, they should be inspected to ensure they are fit to travel. This includes inspecting the animals for ingrown horns.

Transporting stock with ingrown horns causes unnecessary pain and may worsen injury.

Perform husbandry practices such as horn tipping well before of the journey.

Failing to deal with ingrown horns, including moving livestock that are suffering from ingrown horns, is considered a breach of duty of care and can result in severe penalties. Any animal with an ingrown horn must be treated appropriately and the wound has to heal before they are transported.

Read more about preparing animals for transport in Meat and Livestock Australia's 'fit to load' guide.

Know your general obligations

Under the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001, anyone who owns, manages or handles livestock has a legal duty of care and is responsible for ensuring acceptable welfare standards for animals in their charge.

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