A former professional calf dehorner says a move to a vet-assisted sedated calf disbudding is one of the best decisions she has ever made.
Brooke Evans, who with her husband Justin, milks 200-220 cows on 365 hectares at Greta West in north-east Victoria, started using the new process a couple of years ago.
Before returning to the farm full-time in mid-2012 just before the birth of her first child, Mrs Evans had worked for an artificial breeding services company and had disbudded calves for farmers.
The process involved restraining calves in a calf crush before using a gas dehorner to cauterise the calf buds and then spraying the wounds with an antiseptic.
"Which is fine and it works," she said. "I have done thousands and thousands and thousands of calves that way."
When she returned to the farm full time, she continued to do their own calves the same way.
"But it was getting increasingly harder to get enough of hand from Justin for us to do the calves," she said. "So they were getting bigger before we had enough time to get them done, and the bigger they get the harder they are to handle and the harder it is on them.
"If you do them too late, it really knocks them, they lose weight, it is painful and it takes longer for them to get over it."
Mrs Evans read on the internet about other farmers who were starting to do sedated calf disbudding and thought it looked like a solution to her problems.
"So I rang our local vet and said I want to do sedated calf dehorning, are you doing it or are you willing to do it," she said.
The vets were not offering that service but were aware of it and were interested but said they lacked experience in disbudding. Mrs Evans offered to teach them how to disbud if they would manage the sedation and administer the pain relief to the calves.
Under the new process, Mrs Evans and the vet disbud animals in groups of eight and do 3-4 groups at a time.
The calves skip their morning feed, as would be done for any animal receiving an anaesthetic. "I usually pop the feeder over and they all come to the front of the pen", which allows the vet to quickly administer the sedative via injection to each animal. This reduces the risk of missing one calf or double dosing another.
"Within five minutes they all lay down on the ground and they are asleep," she said. "At that point, I will go around with clippers and clip the horn buds of the hair, it just makes using the gas burner a lot easier."
At the same time, the vet administers a nerve block to the horn and places a couple of millilitres of long-acting pain relief gel behind the animal's tongue, which provides relief for 4-5 days.
Mrs Evans said she then disbudded the calves, while the vet checked them for and treated other things such as extra teats or hernias. Calves could also be vaccinated or tagged, while stud animals could be tattooed.
"There's a myriad of things you could do - they are sedated for 10-15 minutes, but it takes only a few minutes to do the disbudding," she said.
The calves quickly recover from the procedure and by evening were ready for their next feed.
Mrs Evans said the long-term pain relief made a big difference. "When you do it the traditional way, they are really sore and they won't come up to the feeder because they get bumped by each other," she said. "They don't like being touched or anything."
The new process meant the calves did not lose weight. "You don't get weight gain - you just don't get the weight loss, you don't knock them," she said.
Mrs Evans rears between 70 and 100 calves every year. They run an autumn-calving herd on a dryland pasture system.
The herd is about 50 per cent Holstein and 50 per cent stud Illawarra. All heifers are retained.
They use a Simmental mop-up bull and rear all the beef-cross calves (about 30 a year) to weaning at 12-14 weeks. All the beef-cross animals are also disbudded.
Dairy bull calves are sold at one week of age privately to local farmers to rear - none are sent to slaughter.
Mrs Evans said the disbudding originally cost about $13 a calf but the price had reduced as more farmers used the service and now cost about $9 a calf. That compared with about $2 a calf for the traditional process.
"People might baulk at the price - but seriously once you've done it once there is no other way," Mrs Evans said. "I will never, ever do it any other way."
There were additional benefits in things such as removing spare teats. "If we wanted to have a heifer to go to a show that had a spare teat we would get the vet out to especially do it, but they were then big heifers so it was a big task," she said.
The regular vet visits during the calf-rearing season also allowed the vet to check on calves that might have other issues or any other animals with health issues.
Want to read more stories like this?
Sign up to receive our e-newsletter delivered fresh to your email in-box twice a week.