This week’s blog post is “guest written” by Dan, our resident herdsman! After delivering over 350 calves at his previous job, he has some strong opinions on how our prenatal, birth and post-partum care should be on a farm. Be sure to send us any “ask the herdsman” questions you may have for future blogs!
Contrary to popular belief, both males and females in the vast majority of major dairy cattle breeds – Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys – naturally have horns. One of the most common assumptions we hear is that because a cow is a girl she must not have horns, or only the males have horns – this is false and presents a problem to farmers everywhere of what to do with cows who have horns.
Dehorning is one of the compromises that farmers make to ensure the safety of their animals and themselves. An animal with horns can inflict much more damage to its herdmates, handlers, and farm infrastructure, than an animal without horns. I have even known of a farm which lost a cow after it was gored at the feed trough by a Scottish Highland cow with horns over a foot in length.
Part of the problem is that cows establish their pecking order by literally going head-to-head. They square up, press their foreheads together, and attempt to turn or push the other cow backward – thus establishing their dominance and higher social ranking. This social hierarchy wrestling match is done every time a new cow is added to the herd or anytime a cow wants to try to climb the social ladder; in other words, it’s quite frequent.
The problem with horned animals, is that it is very easy for them to inflict cuts or even blind other cows during this social ritual. Take away the horns and you take away almost all of the risk for injury. Having had personal experience with cows & steers with and without horns, we can honestly vouch for the necessity to dehorn calves.
Dehorning calves can be done in a number of ways, however, some methods are more humane than others. The first method is to use a hot iron to cauterize over the growth plates on the calves horn-buds. The horn-buds are the small button-like “roots” from which the horns develop and grow as the calf ages. If the horn buds are damaged or scarred over, the horns will not grow.
The hot iron technique is done with a fire hot iron or an electric or gas powered hot iron. The calf is then held down and its horn-buds burned over. While this is one of the oldest methods used for dehorning calves, it is too traumatic for the calves and isn’t what we are comfortable with.
Another method is scooping the horn-buds out. In my opinion this is one of the most inhumane methods to dehorn an animal. To scoop the horn-buds out, the farmer/rancher uses a tool reminiscent to bolt cutters to cut the calves horn buds out. It’s very difficult (and expensive) to give the proper dose of a general anesthesia to a calve and there is a high risk of the calf never waking up after being put under, it is very rare for the calves to receive anything for pain during either of these procedures.
Not only does scooping cause extreme pain and suffering to the calf, it is also one of the most unreliable methods since it is easy to miss some of the horn-bud causing the horn to grow back misshapen as the calf ages. Fern’s grandmother Millie is a victim of a botched scooping and as a result has a partially grown horn/nub on one side. Moreover, since this process leaves an exposed wound to the calf’s head, the calf is then prone to flies and infection.
The method that we use involves using caustic paste (NDL, Dr. Naylor’s dehorning paste, etc) to scar over the horn-buds. For this to work the calf should be around 2 weeks old or less, since if the horn-bud is too developed the dehorning paste won’t work.
The first step is to shave away some of the fur from around the calf’s horn-buds and to use petroleum jelly to make a protective ring around the outside of calf’s horn-buds (this helps keep the paste from spreading). Next, (using rubber gloves) we lightly cover the calf’s horn-buds with a layer of dehorning paste about the diameter and thickness of a penny and allow the paste to start killing the horn-bud tissue.
Since the paste does cause some irritation and discomfort to the horn-buds as it kills the tissue, we feed the calf as much milk as she will drink immediately after applying the paste – a calf full of warm milk is a sleepy calf, and sleepy calves lay down and nap or lounge instead of trying to rub the paste off their head with their feet (which can spread the paste and do damage to surrounding areas). This is similar to nursing a baby during or immediately after receiving shots or a traumatic procedure.
It may also be a good idea to give the calf some aspirin a half hour or so before the paste will be applied. With older calves in the one to two week range, it may also be helpful to hobble the calf’s back legs, or tape over the dehorning paste with duct tape to keep the calf from spreading the paste.
The dehorning paste will start working immediately and will have finished the job after an hour. At the one hour mark, we wash any remaining paste off with vinegar (which neutralizes the paste), gently dry the horn-buds (which will be raw and tender) and apply a nice layer of Blu-Kote over the area to provide an antiseptic covering and to help keep the flies off. After an hour or two the calf will be back to normal and the horn buds will scab over and begin healing, leaving us with a calf that will no longer grow horns.
While this is the most humane method, in our opinion, it should still only be done by someone with experience, and the calf should be closely monitored the whole time. It is also good to keep calf aspirin on hand to keep the calf in as little of pain as possible while the paste is applied and for an hour or two after.
Our ultimate goal is to breed for animals that are naturally polled (meaning they have no horns genetically) by crossing our cows with polled bulls to get calves that are more likely to be genetically hornless (polled) and continue breeding to polled genetics until we have shaped the genetics of our herd to have hornless animals. Obviously this is a long term project, but one that is worth it in the end.
We do have cow shares currently available and the cows are officially on pasture so the milk is extra sweet with lots of cream this time of the year! Check out our Cow Share Program page for details and check out our latest milk testing results here.
We have 100% non-GMO eggs available for $4.00/dozen, and have lowered our butter price to $4.00/lb to reflect the lower cost of cream right now. Please contact us ASAP if you’d like to put in a last minute pastured chicken order for July or August. Click here for details.
And, look for updates on our upcoming piglets that are due in the next few weeks plus another calf coming in June!