First time goat owners are often intimidated by disbudding. The process is foreign to them, and it seems daunting. I also see a lot of misgivings about the process because it is — momentarily — painful for the kids. Some goat owners choose not to disbud at all. While I obviously cannot control what others do with their goats (nor would I want to — not my circus, not my monkeys!), I do want to share the why behind disbudding. So in this blog post I’ll skip the how and just explain why I am in favor of disbudding — and why I think everyone with dairy goats should disbud.
First, if you’re not familiar with goat terminology, to disbud means to remove the horn growth bud in goat kids so that horns do not grow. This is done in a matter of literal seconds with a (very, very) hot iron. the iron not only kills the horn bud, it also cauterizes the area so that there is no bleeding and little risk of infection. The entire process lasts for a few seconds (two applications of 3-4 seconds per horn bud), is completely safe when done correctly, and has no lasting effects other than the removal of horns. Baby goats are back to nursing mom or downing a bottle immediately after as if nothing has happened. Occasionally mild localized swelling occurs, but even this is rare.
Second, for the sake of full disclosure, let me tell you about Gemma. In the picture above you will see a juvenile goat on the left, Gemma, who missed her disbudding. Her horns are small, but they’re there. Dixie, on the right, is a mature doe who was disbudded appropriately. No horns — not even a scur (partial horn growth due to poor disbudding). Both of these goats are mine. Yes, it’s true. I’m writing a blog about all the reasons to disbud, and I myself missed a kid. *face palm* I misplaced my disbudding iron last year and missed the window for disbudding. In my defense, it is easy to misplace something you only use about once a year. But there you have it, I goofed and missed disbudding Gemma. Now, because of my mishap, I will be banding Gemma’s horns this year before we get into the heat (and flies) of summer. Banding horns comes back into this discussing later on, and it is not something I’m happy to do. At first I believed I could live with having a single horned doe, but I’ve realized I can’t. I cringe every time I see those horns get near another goat’s face and eyes. I cringe when I see her stick her head through the opening of their hay feeder. I cringe when I’m bent over with my face near her head to trim her hooves or otherwise interact with her. Horns really are not safe, and that leads me to. . .
Why We Disbud
By “we” I mean dairy goat owners in general. Let’s get right into it.
The two biggest reasons to disbud are human safety and goat safety. Let’s talk about the goats first. Horns are dangerous for the goat who has them. Horns can and do get stuck in fences, hung in hay feeders, or injured in any number of ways. It’s common to hear about horned goats who have gotten their heads stuck in fencing and been injured or killed because of it. A woman my family used to buy raw milk from lost a goat when she got her head hung in the fence and stray dogs killed her. Goats will stick their heads anywhere, and unfortunately they don’t know to dip the ends of their horns down to pass back through the hole without getting caught. I once had a disbudded, hornless goat manage to get her head stuck in a safe, well-designed hay manger not one that tapered). How? Well, that’s a question one asks frequently with goats. Considering how curious goats are, horns are an added liability.
One of my longest family friends owned a horned Pygmy buck whose horn was kicked off by horse, resulting in a painful, open wound and a lot of blood. That is another problem with horns; sometimes they are injured or broken in fights with other goats or, in this case, run ins with other types of animals. Mature horns contain blood vessels, and their base opens into the goat’s frontal sinuses. Injuries to adult horns are painful and risk infection.
Horns are a menace to other goats as well. Like I said, watching my one horned doe interact with herd makes me cringe. Her horns could easily stab another goat by accident, which is not even considering the damage she could cause if she were intending to do so. If you watch goats interact, you will see them frequently headbutt each other. Sometimes this is a straight hid to the side, while other times you’ll see them jerk their head back and up, a move that, if there horns involved, could easily hook another goat. I have also seen goats hit underneath the goat in the escutcheon, where the udder is, and lift the other goat’s backside up and away from whatever the offending goat wanted. In horned goats, these kinds of normal behaviors are a recipe for disaster, and are how udders get ripped open and trauma-miscarriages are caused. Or, in some cases, how testicles are damaged, as happened to the Facebook user below!
Human safety is also put at risk from horns. One thing that people don’t realize about livestock in general is that they don’t have to be demonstrating aggressive behavior to injure you. Many times they can injure you completely by accident. I have been on the receiving end of a headbutt from a goat, and I’m quite thankful that goat did not have horns. Dairy goat owners work with our goats closely every day. This puts us in the line of fire, so to speak, for horn injuries. It doesn’t have to be a goat that headbutts you. It can be a goat that simply moves the wrong way at the wrong time and hits you in the wrong place, like the face, the eyes, or as the Facebook user above mentioned, the breast.
When we are bent over our goats to administer copper boluses, give a vaccine, draw blood, trim hooves, or any number of other things, we are within easy striking distance of their heads. I have held enough thrashing goats (even friendly goats do not like being restrained!) to know that I don’t want one with horns thrashing around me. Worse yet, horns of dairy goats are at perfect eye level for young children. It can take only seconds for a child to move the wrong way and get stabbed by a horn, or for a goat to move the wrong way and stab a child.
The infrastructure we use for dairy goats does not work well with horns. While goats in the wild roam freely, away from anything like fences or barns or close quarters, that is not the case for dairy goats. Each day goats in milk must be brought into the milking room or barn, placed in a stanchion, and milked. They also eat out of hay racks or mangers and are housed in fencing, both of which horns can become caught in, as already mentioned. Horns do not fit well into milking stands and special accommodations have to be set up to fit them.
Register dairy goats cannot participate in shows if they have horns. All of the primary dairy goat registries in the U.S. require that goats be hornless for showing purposes. This include the American Dairy Goat Association (the largest dairy goat registry in the U.S.), the American Goat Society, and the mini registries (The Miniature Dairy Goat Association and The Miniature Goat Registry). 4-H also does not allow dairy goats with horns to be shown. This is for the safety of the other goats and the humans involved.
Marketability and Future Dehorning
The last thing to consider is the marketability and future well being of horned goats. The market for dairy goats with horns is drastically lower than those that are disbudded, for all the reasons listed above. Assuming you do find homes for horned kids, there is also the concern about the future care of a horned goat. While you may have chosen to keep all of your fencing, barn, and other structures on your farm horn-appropriate, future buyers may not. The lower value of horned goats also means that the goat may get passed around to the types of buyers you likely would not want owning your goats — the ones who just want something cheap and pay no attention to it afterward.
There’s also a chance that someone down the line will decide they do not want the goat to be horned anymore. The methods of removing horns from adult goats are much more stressful and dangerous than disbudding. Horns can be banded by castration bands, which results in the horn slowly dying and finally falling off. I have done this once with a dangerous scur that was growing toward the goat’s head and will be doing it on Gemma’s horns, but I don’t like the method and much prefer disbudding. As the horns weaken they may get knocked off, and they can also become painful before they are fully off. The other option is to have a veterinarian surgically remove the horns, and this is a major surgery. Goats do not always do well under anesthesia, and the surgery results in the front sinuses of the goat being open.
Goats are not disbudded for aesthetic reasons.
I’m not sure where that idea comes from, because I can’t imagine going through the trouble of disbudding just because you prefer the way it looks — nor would any serious dairy farmer make major decisions based on aesthetics alone. I did a little research, and the earliest mention of removing the horns of cows (where the practice began) in the U.S. that I could personally find was in a journal called Bulletin of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Tennessee published in 1888. At that time the disbudding iron had not yet been invented (the electric light bulb was less than ten years old!), and cattle were being dehorned by restraining them and sawing off the horns. It was not an easy or pleasant task, and certainly not something farmers did to make the cows prettier.
Horns will not protect goats from predators.
One of my pet peeves is the argument that horns can protect goats from predators. It just isn’t true. While I won’t say that no goat in the history of the world has used its horns to headbutt a predator, I will say that horns are not a viable prevention or line of defense against predators. First of all, horns are not designed as a defense mechanism. Goats are prey species, which means they rely on the fight or flight principle. When they can, they will always choose flight — to run away. When cornered, they may try to fight, but it will not ultimately save them in most circumstances.
I have seen too many pictures of horned goats killed by predators to ever think that horns would do an ounce of good against a determined predator. When you think about the fact that horned and antlered animals in the wild are frequently killed by predators such as coyotes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions, it should be abundantly clear that our domestic goats do not stand a chance. Packs of loose dogs, coyotes, big cats, what have you — all of them are equipped and capable of taking down prey larger than them, with or without horns.
Horns Are Not Necessary for Heat Regulation
Horns are vascular, which means that they are capable of giving off heat. In fact, research* has shown that goats from desert climates have larger horns with a thinner outer layer that allows for greater release of heat, while goats from more temperate climates have smaller, thicker horns that restrict heat release. However, goats do not need their horns to survive hot weather. If goats needed horns to survive heat, then polled and disbudded goats (and other natural polled breeds of cattle or sheep) would be dropping dead across the country in the summer. Naturally polled (hornless) goats should not exist if the horns were necessary to live in the heat, because the goats without horns would not have been able to reproduce that gene if they were dying from heat exhaustion.
Another thing that people often don’t consider is the opposite side of the same coin: horns also distribute heat in the cold winter weather as well. While there is evidence that horns can vasoconstrict to reduce the heat released, it cannot be cut off completely. Research* has been done studying the energetic cost of large horns in livestock in the colder temperatures. So while those horns may let off a bit of heat in the summer, they’re also letting heat out in the winter, too.
Disbudding is “Mean.”
Some people believe that disbudding is somehow cruel or mean to the goat kids. In reality, it’s much more cruel to allow a goat to get its head stuck in a fence and be killed by dogs, or to allow a goat to have its horn kicked off, or to be surgically dehorned, or get trapped and strangle, or have its udder ripped open by horns, etc. I’m not accusing people who have had these kinds of things happen of knowingly allowing their goats to suffer — accidents happen to all of us. What I’m trying to point out is that the risks of having horns are greater than the discomfort of a few seconds of disbudding.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, disbudding done properly is extremely low risk and takes a total time of a few seconds. Thousands of goat kids are disbudded each year with no issues or problems. In my experience, the kids complain just as much or more about being restrained and having their heads shaved as they do being disbudded. Disbudding is not the only thing we do to livestock, particularly kids, that causes a short period of pain and discomfort. Things like castration, tattooing (or ear tagging or branding, as is done in cattle), giving a shot of medication, etc all cause a level of pain. Personally I’ve observed more lasting discomfort in castrated males than I do in disbudded kids.
Ultimately we do these things because the long term benefits outweigh the short term discomfort that the goats will not even remember later on in life. The same can be said for disbudding; a few seconds of discomfort is a worthy trade for a lifetime of increased safety and well being.
The cost of horniness: Heat loss may counter sexual selection for large horns in temperate bovids.
Karine Picard, Marco Festa-Bianchet & Donald Thomas. Journal Eco Science. Pages 280-284. 28 Mar 1996. https://doi.org/10.1080/11956860.1996.11682343
Thermoregulatory Function of the Horns of the Family Bovidae. Taylor,Charles R. Defense Technical Information Center. Page 111. Dec 1966. http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/AD0649519