Early funding check-in: Sylvia Kehoe

Project title: “Improving the health and welfare of dairy calves”
Funding began March 2020

Sylvia Kehoe
Professor | Animal and Food Science
UW–River Falls

The prevention of horn growth is a necessity on dairy farms to keep both animals and humans safe. In recent years, using caustic paste to remove horn buds from calves less than one week old has gained popularity. However, the method is not always consistent or safe for the animal or employee. Kehoe has conducted several research trials related to calf disbudding, each with unique objectives, but similar goals to improve the disbudding process.

The first trial involved developing a caustic paste applicator that was reusable or disposable to make the disbudding process much more consistent. Kehoe worked collaboratively with UW–Platteville’s John Obielodan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, to develop an adhesive patch for safe and effective application. A larger study was conducted on a commercial dairy farm to test effectiveness, safety and consistency. This invention earned Kehoe the 2022 WiSys Innovator of the Year award, and resulted in a filed patent.

With the help of dedicated undergraduate researchers and willing farmer-partners, Kehoe conducted several studies to improve the paste disbudding process for calves and humans. Photo by Pat Deninger/UW–River Falls

The objective of a second trial was to examine the effects of oral stimulation on pain behaviors in dairy calves. Researchers wanted to know if providing a nipple in the pen would allow calves to alleviate their pain after paste disbudding.

A third project evaluated the amount of paste needed for effective results, comparing two common brands of paste. The primary objective of the third project was to determine the necessary volume of two different brands of paste for effective disbudding. The secondary objective will be to determine pain and wound healing from these different paste volumes and brands.


Sylvia Kehoe’s Hub-funded study evaluating the effectiveness of two caustic paste brands and volumes was presented as an abstract at the June 2023 American Dairy Science Association annual meetings in Ottowa, Canada.

In addition to Kehoe, Karissa Juckem, Jack Saemrow, Joseph Schuh and Dr. Kate Creutzinger contributed to the study.

Overall, this study suggests that farmers may purchase different brands of caustic paste and expect similar results in wound size however an increased volume of caustic paste applied will increase wound size.

Read more about those involved in this work:

Karissa Juckem: From undergraduate researcher to graduate student

On-farm research creates opportunity for students and life-long learning