I’m probably ready to write about this. I’ve put it off to make sure things turned out alright. I put it off because it was disturbing. I put it off because I have cognitive dissonance, misgivings, mixed feelings, and conflict about it.
Some animals come with horns. We solved this with the goats long ago and far away by leaving them alone. We like horns on goats. People will tell you all kinds of tales about how very dangerous they are, how they will hurt you and each other with them and it is all cr*p. We’ve had goats going on forever (more than 15 years anyway) and all that were born here and most that came here had horns. The only real danger for goats with horns is field wire fencing – if they can get their heads through it in one direction and get stuck. Thus we don’t have field fencing where the goats are concerned. On the positive side, horns are handy dandy handles. Horns enhance self-protection some in that they allow a predator to be picked up and tossed, but dehorned goats and horned goats butt (or as my kids call it, buck) exactly the same. They coexist in a herd perfectly. We’ve never had a horn injury to man or beast (although I have seen a dog tossed). I wouldn’t turn down a dehorned goat but I wouldn’t dehorn one either. There is very little difference between a horned goat and a dehorned one, so why put them through it. Besides, horns are good looking.
Dairy cows have horns – at least to my knowledge they don’t come in polled varieties. Both my cows had been dehorned long before they came here. When old cow had her baby, I think she was polled because her daddy was Angus – at least at seven months I don’t remember her having horns but that was a long time ago. When new calf had her baby, in just a day or two you could feel the horn buds. I mistakenly thought someone around here would have a dehorning iron I could borrow but everyone I asked had polled cattle. I thought I’d arranged for the vet to do it but, well, the kybosh was put on that and my feelings were hurt and that’s enough said about it.
And so I was left with the ability to use dehorning paste. Pretty much everything I read and everyone I talked said not to do that. I didn’t have a choice at that point. I put in my order. I read a description from someone who had experience using dehorning paste who put it on the buds then wrapped the head in duck tape. That sounded better that trying to tie her up with no contact with mom for seven hours which is what the directions said.
The calf was exactly eight weeks old the day I put the paste on and wrapped her head in blue duck tape. I felt scared doing it, hoping to put on enough but not too much, hoping the tape would hold, every fear that is there the first time one does something new like this, something that hurts, something you can’t take back, something you are absolutely on your own with. She didn’t react at all to us applying it, or wrapping her head in tape.
In a few minutes, however, she was definitely uncomfortable. Not hugely uncomfortable, not unbearably uncomfortable, but uncomfortable. She scratched at her horns. She lay down and got up and was generally restless. She nursed and butted her mother’s belly. At about the two or three hour mark, one side bled for a few minutes, not badly but enough to scare me until it stopped. But at that point you know there is nothing you can do.
The vet said that dehorning cattle was the most brutal thing he did as a vet. He does it by burning the horn buds off. Takes about 20 seconds. You can’t tranquilize cows (it kills them) and local anesthetic takes 20 minutes just to inject and is pretty traumatic in itself – better just to get the 20 second procedure over with. He recommended against using the paste but I swear it is the same thing, just less intense burning for longer.
The process exhausted the calf and she laid down in the shade and slept it off. By the seven hour point, she had her duck tape hat off and resumed her life seemingly no worse for the wear except for these two places burned into her scalp/skull. They were not raw but closed and didn’t seem to bother her. For two or three days I sprayed them with Scarlex even though I don’t think there was any real reason too except it made me feel better – the flies weren’t bothering it, no weepage, no sign of anything amiss. By the second day she’d completely forgiven me.
It is now a month post de-horning and the scabs are almost off and except that she won’t have horns, I don’t think you’ll be able to tell it ever happened.
Now, why did I dehorn my calf and not my goats? Well, if I had my way, I wouldn’t dehorn my cows either. As soon as I mentioned that possibility to the vet (and the student he had with him that day), he flustered something about a little pain for the calf prevented people from getting gored. That’s the same sort of thing that people say about goats too. Horns might be dangerous, but they aren’t nearly so dangerous as cows, and without horns people think they can forget that a cow can kill you anyway, that she doesn’t really need horns to kill you. That she chooses not to kill you is her grace to you. That you treat her with love and respect is her due, and if you don’t, she ought to hurt you.
But I might want to sell that calf someday as a homestead hand milker. I think there might be a market coming for that sort of thing. And people are afraid of horns. And her market value would likely be hurt by intact horns. And so I put her, and me, through dehorning.
If I decided to dehorn anything, I would not hesitate to use the dehorning paste again, with caution, and I would probably use it when the calf was younger, and the duck tape thing works. But I’d have to come to a decision new again about whether or not to dehorn at all.