Thursday, August 26, 2010


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.


el said...

I like horns on goats too CG but my goats don't have horns.

Your ambivalence is well deserved, and believe me I am so happy to learn it turned out well. Poor little creature.

There is this thing we do, isn't there, riding the wave of convention and culture (which often are two separate things) when it comes to our animals, and often to many things in this life. The convention says dairy cows should be hornless, and honestly that extends to most dairy goats too; you can think of a lot of reasons why this convention gained prominence. But for whatever reason we question these conventions, our hearts or our sense warring with "what is done." You may not be keeping that calf so therefore it is best to make her as attractive as you can to those future buyers. Therefore she's now dehorned.

Our goat birthed three bucklings this February and I called my vet to schedule the disbudding/castration/shots session. "Triplets, eh? I will come out in about a week," and she came out when they were 6 days old. "They're really big," she said, which honestly is what my heart told me, even though I had zero experience with goat babies of any kind. So the disbudding and the castration (surgical) was traumatic for the little guys...and necessary, frankly, as I intended to sell them. It would have gone better if they were 2 days old. Now I know.

But I question it. Had one of them been a girl, I might not have had her disbudded; our fence is a portable electric one with holes too small for even a kid's head but their loafing yard has cattle panels, thus is a potential risk for a horned goat to get hung up on.

I guess it helps to always question. Even when things "turn out well."

joe said...

I worked at a small cow dairy a few years ago, and we dehorned with an iron all the little ones. Occasionally an odd cow would end up with a horn anyway. But I didn't see much additional risk. Well-treated cows are pretty docile in my experience, and if they're spooked I'd be more wary of a kick than anything. I'm not really sure how horns would work out with little kids in the picture (because I have no experience there), but I'd imagine potential homesteading families having concerns there. Bulls and steers, though, in my mind there's no question about disbudding them.

Anyway, glad it worked out so well. Never even heard of the paste before reading this post.

Alecto said...

Oh, I understand, I really do but I cried for both you and the baby reading this. You are very brave and incredibly compassionate and I love you for that.

CG said...

I don't think "compassionate" when I think about it. I think "sell out". Not that I won't do it again, I probably would, realities of the marketplace, but it is one of those "everyone has a price" things.

Now, being able to look at that head on and not hide from it, not rationalize that away, that's where I think I'm different from most everybody else.

And Alecto, I can't seem to comment on your blog at the moment so just know, thanks for the kind words over there too. Our children ARE the most glorious beautiful beings

without mirrors to pose for!

Marsha said...

Never knew there was a thing called dehorning a cow...sounds as painful as declawing a cat. I learned something new today. This will probably be a topic of conversation at dinner tonight. :)

CG said...

well, there is at least *nothing* that would induce me to declaw a cat!