Dehorning Calves on the End of a Rope 

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Don had the calves in a small area on one side of his barn. The good thing was they were all only four or five months old. The bad thing was there was no squeeze chute or headgate. I would be working these calves all on the end of the rope, and that would make an easy job a lot harder.


Just before I left Enumclaw, I talked with another veterinarian in the area. He was older and had learned the ropes, so to speak.

“Dave, a couple of years ago, I told all my clients that I was throwing my ropes away,” Doctor Jim said. “That was the best decision I made in life. My job was so much easier. Clients now all have the animals caught and restrained when I pull onto their place.”

I thought that sounded like good advice, but when I would mention it to other cow doctors, I would get a range of opinions. 

When I went to continuing education class at Colorado State, I mentioned it to an older veterinarian who looked like he had spent many years working on cattle.

“A veterinarian friend of mine in Washington told me that the best thing he ever did was to throw away his rope,” I said.

“Throw away his rope!” the old vet said. “If I threw away my rope, I would starve to death. And there is no doubt about it.”


“I have them all in the barn,” Don said as I stepped out of the truck. “They are in a small area, so it should go pretty well.”

I put my small Barnes Dehorner and my forceps for pulling arteries into a bucket of warm water. I squirted a lot of Betadine in the water. I placed three twelve cc syringes of lidocaine into my left breast pocket and a handful of needles in the pocket of my coveralls. 

“Let’s go get to work,” I said to Don as I grabbed my rope and headed to the barn.

The calves knew something was up as soon as I came through the gate of their holding pen. There were only six of them, so it should go pretty well.

They were all crowding into the far corner, trying to figure out which one of them was going to be first.

The one looking at me out of the bunch was an easy target, and I threw a loop of the rope over her head. I took a dally on the post in the feed rack and pulled her up close to the rack.

This was probably going to be easier than I thought. She planted her feet and pulled straight back against the rope. I put a needle on a syringe and injected the nerves at the base of each horn.

I retrieved the dehorner from the bucket and scooped both horns off before the calf knew what was going on. Calves this size didn’t have the frontal sinus growing into the base of the horn, so only a smooth wound resulted from the dehorning. I pulled the single artery at the bottom of the wound and then applied antibiotic powder and sprayed the wound for flies.

“One down and five to go,” I said to Don as I released the calf to go back to the corner.

The other calves went along well. The procedure was the same. The only problem was getting a rope on the next calf as the target selection became harder to pick out of the bunch when most calves were dehorned.

Then came the last calf. It always seemed the last one was the problem child. I fitted a new needle on the remaining syringe of lidocaine and stuck it in my pocket. Then I moved the crowd around enough to get a rope on the last calf. She bellowed and bucked and ran circles around me as I leaned my weight against the rope and worked myself over to the feed rack to take a dally on the post.

I struggled to maintain my position as the calf continued to buck and bellow. She acted like she knew something terrible was going to happen. I wrapped the rope around the post and decided to take a second dally. I just about had it done when the calf lurched one more time and pulled the slack out of the rope, trapping my ring finger under the dally. I could feel the flesh tear. I pulled a little slack and freed my finger from the wraps of the rope.

I looked at my finger. A tear on the end of my finger was longer than the nail on the outside edge. It would obviously need stitches, and it hurt just a little bit, still somewhat numb from the injury. 

I hated sutures because the doctors were not very good at it, and the lidocaine hurt like hell. 

I took the syringe out of my pocket, pulled the needle cap off with my teeth, and injected the wound with a good dose of lidocaine. 

I left the calf tied with a long rope, went to the truck to wash my wound, and I put on a surgical glove to finish the dehorning. 

I pulled the calf close to the feed rack and retied the rope. After choking herself while I tended to my finger, she had settled down a bit. I considered not giving her any lidocaine for the dehorning, but that would have been a bit abusive. 

I headed back to the clinic when the work was done and the finger on my surgery glove filled with blood. 

I cleaned and wrapped my finger as Sandy called the doctor’s office. I was in luck, and Doctor Toffler could see me right away.

I was shown into the treatment area of the local clinic in Sweet Home. The nurse carefully removed the wrap from my finger and scrubbed it slightly. 

“This looks really painful,” she said. “You must be pretty tough, not to be bothered by my efforts. I don’t want to hurt you, so I will leave most of the scrubbing until the doctor numbs this wound with some lidocaine.”

I didn’t say anything. I thought I would just leave her with the illusion that I was tough.

Doctor Toffler came in and looked at my hand.

“Ouch!” he said as he held my finger up for a closer look. He took a little wire probe and started poking around on the end of my finger.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I just want to see if there is any nerve damage before I put any lidocaine into this wound,” Doctor Toffler said.

“That ball game is over,” I said. “I had a syringe of lidocaine in my pocket when this happened, and I injected it while it was still a little numb from the initial injury.”

Doctor Toffler looked at me and shook his head. “The things you guys do,” he said. 

They finished scrubbing the wound, and Doctor Toffler placed several sutures and then put a large, cumbersome wrap on the finger. My tetanus shot was up to date, so they gave me an appointment for suture removal and ushered me out the door.

The wound healed well, as did the dehorning wounds. When it was time for suture removal, I did that at my clinic. I had Sandy call the doctor’s office and report good wound healing. That probably gave Doctor Toffler one more reason to shake his head.

Photo by Gaspar Zaldo from Pexels.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

6 thoughts on “Dehorning Calves on the End of a Rope 

    1. A bit difficult to do with just one hand I’d say, as you cannot hold the flesh/skin together and pull the needle through. But what do I know – I have not become a doctor because I hate needle work.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I bit difficult, but stay tuned and I will string a few events together, and probably find a place to post the story in a week or two.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Well, when you are out and about you have to do what you have to do. As I said, I am not a doctor, I really hate needlework. These days wounds are glued. I’d still be no doctor – being too stupid.

        Liked by 1 person

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