According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than nine out of ten dairy farms practice dehorning, meaning the farmers cut or burn the horns off of cows. But while there is serious pressure to end the controversial practice of tail docking, in which farmers remove the ends of cows' tails, there is no sign of similar momentum to stop dehorning.
Lyndon Odell, CEO of Willet Dairy, one of New York state's largest dairies, said dehorning is a "standard practice in agriculture" and done to protect both the animals and dairy employees. "Part of the issue with this is cow injury," said Odell, "and also safety for the employees. If you have an animal running around with a sharp horn, they can gore other animals that are in the same group with them or they can injure an employee that's working with the animals."
The video to the left shows the process of dehorning. WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT.
The procedure, which usually involves burning the horns off with a hot iron, most of the time without anesthesia, has been condemned by animal rights advocates as cruel.
Nathan Runkle, director of Mercy for Animals, which provided the undercover footage seen in the video above, says the images show distress. Said Runkle, "You can tell from the footage that these animals are in excruciating pain in the way that they bellow and try to escape this painful procedure."
Runkle also claimed that the animals shown being dehorned in the Mercy for Animals footage were too old for the process. Dehorning of younger animals involves less pain and the removal of less material.
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry and an expert in designing humane livestock handling methods, says that horns need to come off because they're sharp, but that anesthesia is essential.
"Dehorning hurts," said Grandin. "It's a lot of stress and we should be giving them a lot of anesthetics. The research is clear. The dehorning is the single most painful thing we do."
Grandin also said that dehorning should be done when animals are young. A 2007 USDA report showed that 94 percent of dairy farms dehorned cattle, down slightly from 1996, when the number was almost 99 percent. The report suggested the drop might be due to the fact that more mid-sized operations have the dehorning of calves done off-site.
The report also showed that hot irons had become a more popular dehorning method during the same period. Sixty-four percent of dairy operations that dehorned cattle used hot irons in 2007, compared to 40 percent 11 years earlier. Fewer than 20 percent of dairy operations that dehorned cattle used analgesics or anesthesia during the process.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Factory Farming Campaign at the Humane Society of the U.S., said that though his organization disapproves of dehorning, with or without anesthesia, there is no significant, organized political opposition to the practice.
"Success requires focus," said Shapiro. "There is an endless list of cruelty that farm animals are subjected to and the animal rights groups have tried to put a laser focus on a few issues."
"The confinement of animals, detailing, force-feeding for foie gras are really the three main issues that have surrounded the public policy debate for animal welfare," said Shapiro. "Dehorning hasn't been one of them."