Cows and Horns

I hate horns on my cows! That being said, I have 2 with horns. One is our steer, Bean and the other is our sweetest cow, Mavis (above). I would like to say they have horns because of some sort of grand plan but that would be a lie. They have horns because I left it too late for “humane” solutions.

But why remove a cow’s horns? A horned cow has 2 weapons ready at hand (or should I say hoof), weapons that most cows are perfectly happy to use whenever possible (they are very strong minded beasts). Horned cows can do a lot of damage to the other members of their herd, to property and to the people who work with them.

I should probably back up and give a little more information about cows and horns. Male and female cows can have horns but it is a simple recessive trait…….think back to Punnett squares in high school biology and the pea experiments you inevitably did. In case you've forgotten here’s one for you:

HH=no horns, Hh=no horns, hh=horns

Want to learn more:

A cow without horns is referred to as being polled, if the cow was born without horn buds then it is naturally polled. The beef industry has actively worked on removing horned cows. Farmers get a much better price at the sale barn for polled animals, as a result many beef breeds are pretty much all naturally polled.

The dairy industry, on the other hand, has spent their time breeding for milk volume and fat content, not polled genetics. I’m just guessing here but there is no obvious financial reason to do so. Dairy farmers with naturally polled cows don’t get paid more for their milk making the incentive to breed out horns low down on the list.

Now we come to the gross part….there is no nice way to remove horns. Period. Most dairy farmers use a caustic paste which they apply as early as possible to the horn bud. This paste eats away at the skin and horn bud destroying it. You can get the paste at the feed store (it’s cheap), apply it yourself plus it can be done when the animal is very young making it easier for them to recover. Unfortunately, many people apply the paste incorrectly or too late and then must go back and scoop out the horn (detailed below). This is probably the process we will use, until we have bred out horns from our herd, moving forward.

Another way to remove horns is to burn the horn bud with a special tool (most goat people use this method). It’s pretty quick, and if done correctly, is effective. The biggest problem is how to control the animal. They must stay still while you literally burn 2 holes in their head.

Another procedure is to scoop out the horn bud. This process is revolting! I had our last 2 heifers done this way. The vet come out, sedated the calves then used a tool to physically dig a hole in the animal’s head removing the horn and base material. Our vet numbed the area after sedating so they didn’t feel a thing, but the amount of blood was alarming. There are multiple negatives about this process, first, to do it humanely you have to sedate and numb the animal which can get expensive, 2nd, the cow has 2 deep wounds in their head that could potentially get infected.

With any of the procedures there is risk of infection or death. Even if the worst doesn’t happen you are forcing the animal to focus on healing rather than growing which seems like a bad trade off to me.

As we increase our herd (moving towards the goal of selling ice cream and cheese.....more about that in later blog posts) we have decided to make breeding for hornless cows a priority over anything else (we are simultaneously trying to increase our grass conversion genetics) which is why this year’s naturally polled bull came from Reverence Farm. They’re doing some pretty cool stuff you should check them out.

We will always choose a polled bull moving forward! I never want to dehorn a calf ever again.

You can see photos of our latest bull on our Instagram and FB accounts @bullcityfarm

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