Gianaclis Caldwell  @  ChelseaGreen

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The De-Horning Dilemma

Posted on Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 at 7:00 pm by Gianaclis Caldwell

A few weeks ago I was bumming around on Amazon.com, reading a few of the reviews that readers can post after reading (hopefully thoroughly) someone’s book.  The particular author in whose reviews I was snooping around is a favorite of mine. His book on life with goats is particularly poetic and at the same time realistic and accurate. It is a classic. One of the reviewers wrote of the author’s “barbaric and cruel” treatment of his goats, as he had dis-budded (removed the horn buds of the young kids before actual horns could grow) and fed the babies on a bottle instead of letting the mother raise them. She, as a way of presenting her credentials, cited her own experience with goats.

Do Goats and Cows Really Need to be Disbudded?

For many non-farmers or hobbyists with a strong urban background, the de-horning (or more likely “dis-budding”) of goats and cows that would otherwise grow horns (some animals are born without horns – “polled”) might seem inhumane and even, as the reviewer above said, barbaric. At some level they have a point, but for most domestic livestock, horns are more liability than asset. Now, of course there are some folks out there who would argue that animals should never be kept in captivity and therefore there is no situation when dehorning or disbudding should be performed. If these folks are living on this planet without having any impact to the land, its animals, and the other humans, then I applaud them and admit their superiority. Of course they can’t be doing that and ever read this, so I guess they’ll never know of my admiration.

For goats in the wild, or more primitive domestic settings, horns serve several purposes: First as a means of defense against predators, second as a way to radiate excess body heat when temperatures are high, and lastly as a way to reach that really-itchy-spot between their shoulder blades. For most domesticated goats, though, horns present several life threatening and quality of life issues: The most concerning issue is that horns lead to becoming entrapped in fencing- it is easy to stick one’s head through the fence when horns are present, but all but impossible to extract. When trapped in a fence several horrible things can happen to the animal including becoming a meal for a large predator or having the horn broken off at the base and bleeding, even to death. In the best outcome, the animal must simply be rescued from the fence. But while trapped, they are stressed from being vulnerable and easy targets for other, more dominant herdmates to torment and physically abuse. Then next, only slightly less important issue that horned animals pose is accidental and intentional injury to other goats and to their human handlers. While this can be avoided to a great degree, all of us, who have had goats for any length of time, have a story of being nearly blinded by a goat accidentally hitting our faces with a horn. Some more obstinate goats (What? Goats can be stubborn?) even learn to use their horns as a way to avoid being worked with. Bucks (intact male goats) are especially notorious for this type of behavior.

For the breeder of registered dairy goats, horns limit the animal’s future in another  fashion. In order to enter the ring of a goat show (where prizes can be won that will help the breeder find superior homes for other members of the goat herd and where the breeder can learn more about improving their animals through choosing better genetic traits) dairy goats may not have horns. If animals are not disbudded within a few weeks of birth, then removing horns can be a risky prospect. While many people have no intention of showing their goats, the next owner (and every animal, no matter how loved, is a heartbeat away from a new owner) may not only want to show the goat, but may also have fencing and housing where goats can be harmed.

All that being said, I know several people who quite successfully keep their goats horned. They use electric fencing or large, open range and manage smaller herds. They often use the goats as pack animals, and then the asset of having horns to help lose body heat outweighs the hazards. They also discriminately choose animals with gentle dispositions. So it is possible!

Disbudding in the Most Humane Manner

For those of us who believe that a hornless animal has the best hope for a humane and happy future, the dilemma becomes how to remove the horn growth in the kindest fashion possible. In order to choose the least traumatic method, the goat’s psyche and natural instincts need to be considered. You cannot view it from the standpoint of a predator- any species that naturally eats other animals (that’s us) .Predator and prey animals deal with pain and fear in different fashions.  If you happen to be aware of the writing and teaching of Temple Grandin (whose groundbreaking work studying animal responses as compared to her own autism has led to great changes in how meat animals are managed, especially during slaughter), then you might have already contemplated the fact that for a prey animal fear can be more traumatic than pain. (When compared to predators such as humans, dogs, and cats). Remember all animals feel pain, but the response to pain- in actions, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. is less than a similar pain situation for a human. The opposite is true for fear. When a prey animal is put in a situation of danger- being threatened by a dog, a human yelling and striking at the animal, or being chased, their response- heat rate, blood pressure, etc.- is greater than you would typically see for a human or other predator animal in the same situation.

So how can you use this knowledge to ease the suffering of goats and calves during the procedure of disbudding?

First, let’s review the most common method of disbudding. The quickest, most effective way to disbude involves the use of a hot iron with a circular shaped tip. The iron is heated to approximately 700° F or hotter. If the iron is not hot enough, then it might be held to the head too long and over-heat the skull,  causing damage to the young animal’s brain. It will also not effectively kill the cells that will produce horn growth. So burning-hot-iron-applied-to-animal’s-head. Doesn’t sound too nice, does it? In addition to recalling the knowledge of how an animal handles pain, you must remind yourself that the goat and cow’s skull is designed to take quite a beating (literally) when the animals play and fight by butting each other (goats do this more than cows). When the iron is applied at the right temperature, the procedure is over in a matter of seconds. Recovery time (as measured by vital signs- heart rate and blood pressure) is extremely rapid.

A common electric disbudding iron

The procedure can be made even less traumatic through a few simple choices that address the fear factor of being held down as well as any residual pain that the animal will feel (even if they don’t show the effects of pain the same as you and I would).  To help reduce anxiety and fear, the following things should be addressed:

  1. Is the animal afraid of you and fearful of being handled?
  2. Can you provide a low stress environment where the procedure is to be done? For example, the area should be near their usual housing, free of other fears such as dogs, loud noises, etc.
  3. Are you competent in performing the procedure? Quick, confident action will provide the shortest exposure to pain and fear.
  4. Can the animal be restrained in the least traumatic, most comfortable fashion?
  5. Can the animal be returned to a low stress, comforting situation? For example, if the kid or calf can return to a pen with its litter or pen mates or mother or be given a bottle of milk, then anxiety will be reduced. Be aware that it is not uncommon for mothers to temporarily or permanently reject a recently disbudded baby due to the scent change. If the mother rejects the baby, then stress will be increased.

Using Pain Medication, Sedation, and other Pain Reduction Methods

Here at Pholia Farm we sedate (put to sleep) the kids during the procedure. We use a medication that is legal for the veterinarian to prescribe to the producers they feel are accomplished in accurately dosing strong medications as well as monitoring the vital signs of the animal. If I was only disbudding, I might not choose to do this, but we also tattoo the kids at the same time. Tattooing seems to be equally or more painful to the young kid, so for us it makes sense to provide the least fear and pain possible.   Many breeders choose not to sedate as when the kid awakes, they are disoriented and seem quite anxious. In that case, it makes sense, given what I talked about earlier, that it is likely that the groggy state caused by the medication might be more traumatic for the animal than the brief moment of strong pain. Fortunately, we figured out a simple remedy for this. After the procedure is finished we place the kid in a small pen with other “sleeping” kids and cover it to keep the space dark. The kids wake feeling safe and quiet- making almost no sounds and recovering fully without any apparent signs of stress. If you are interested in using sedation, you will need to first become competent in other areas of herd management and then develop a plan with your veterinarian.

Analgesics (pain killers) can be given to young animals about 30 minutes before the procedure to help minimize the after effects of the burning. Again, you should consult your veterinarian to decide upon the medication and dosage.

A cool, antiseptic (kills bacteria) spray should be applied immediately after the procedure is completed (as each bud is finished burning, spray that area). This will help cool the animals head.  Some people also use an icepack to apply to the head of the animal.

Again, distracting the baby with a bottle of milk or nursing on their mother, will help shift them away from any fear or anxiety that had been being experienced.

Public Perceptions

However you decide to approach the horn issue, you owe it to your animals and the survivability of small farms to both educate the public and deal with the issue in the most civilized, humane approach possible. Beware of treating the concerns of others with a cavalier attitude- nothing good will come of such an approach. Even with the right attitude, keep in mind that many people are greatly distanced from any of the less savory realities that most farmers deal with without a second thought. People cannot be exposed too suddenly to things that they might not understand or be able to put into context. Even watching a live birth, without any complications, can be too traumatic for some people. So be alert, be aware, be knowledgeable, and be kind!

FCA Gianaclis Caldwell is the author of The Farmstead Creamery Advisor.
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