Yalca, Vic, farmer Steven Dalitz, who started disbudding calves using sedation and long-term pain relief two years ago, says he would now never do it any other way.
Mr Dalitz said the process was not only easier for him, but was significantly less stressful for the calves. This meant fewer sick calves post disbudding.
Mr Dalitz and his wife Kristi milk 200 cows on a 200-hectare irrigated pasture farm in northern Victoria. The herd is predominantly autumn calving. Heifers calve down in the August in their first lactation and are then carried over to February the year after for their second calving as part of the main herd.
Mr Dalitz rears all heifer and bull calves ù so raises about 200 each year.
Up until about two years ago, calf disbudding was done on the farm by a contractor from a local artificial breeding centre. The process involved catching calves, restraining them in a calf crush and removing the horn buds using a gas cautery gun.
"They bellowed and screamed and then you couldn't get near them for two days because they didn't want you to touch their head or anything like that," Mr Dalitz said.
The year before they started using the new method, they used a pain relief as part of the traditional process. A painkiller (or nerve block) was injected behind the eyes of the calf before disbudding.
But Mr Dalitz said this was hard work as the calves didn't like receiving the injections and he had to catch them twice ù once to have the injections and again once the painkiller had taken effect to have them disbudded.
He then saw a post on Facebook from another farmer about sedating calves before disbudding and thought it looked like a better process.
When his vet from Numurkah Veterinary Clinic was next visiting the farm, he asked whether they would be interested in offering the service. The vet decided to look into it, bought a gas dehorner and began offering the service.
The new process is simpler and gentler.
The two-to-six-week old calves are disbudded in batches of 10 ù with up to 40 done at a time.
The calves are not fed before the procedure to ensure there are no respiratory issues when they are sedated.
When the vet arrives, Mr Dalitz hangs an empty feeder over the calf pen and the calves begin to suckle from the teats. This allows the vet to walk behind them and inject them with the sedative.
"A couple of them might jump (at the needle prick), but then they go off to sleep," Mr Dalitz said.
The vet then injects a nerve block behind the eye, which takes a few minutes to take effect, and then uses the gas cautery gun to disbud the calves. A long-acting pain reliever Medicam is then injected, which lasts for 3-4 days.
Mr Dalitz said they also took the opportunity while the calves were sedated to do other procedures, including tagging the calves, vaccinating them and treating hernias.
"And afterwards they don't even know they've been done," he said. "An hour later they get up and are like that was a nice sleep and come and drink their milk."
Mr Dalitz said they did not do the procedure on sick calves to avoid further stress on those animals, "which is probably just common sense".
He said the procedure costs $8.80 (including GST) per calf ù about $3 more than the old way.
"But it is just so much easier ù you don't have to catch calves, and as I am getting older, that's getting harder," he said. "It is so much easier, you don't get kicked and you don't have calves trying to jump out of pens and that sort of stuff."
The procedure was also better for the calves.
"When we used to do it and put them in the crush, some calves wouldn't come up to you for a week or 10 days afterwards," he said.
"Now they don't seem to stress afterwards ù they just go on with life. I don't get crook calves afterwards."
Mr Dalitz said he was pro animal welfare and saw this process as a better outcome for his animals. He said he believed it should be made compulsory.
"I think the sooner it becomes compulsory the better because the ones who won't do it are probably the ones who need to do it," he said. "If it was compulsory, at least vets are getting to those farms too."
Animal welfare concern was behind Mr Dalitz's decision to retain all his bull calves. "You'd feed them for a week and you'd just get them drinking really nicely and then they'd all come running up behind you on calf truck day and you'd put them on the calf truck," he said.
"I hated selling calves ù so we just rear them instead. And it's actually ended up a really good cash crop here now."
Mr Dalitz rears the uncastrated bull calves to about 3-4 months of age and sells them to a feedlot at Picola, Vic, that is looking for dairy beef. He receives $300-$400 for them. "So it's good money," he said.
He estimates it costs $200-$250 to rear them to that age. He said he was happy with the price as he always only ever looked to breakeven on the exercise.D