Disbudding goat kids and calves
This is the first in what we hope will be a series of blog pages dedicated to the consideration and description of management techniques common to all of us who practise the art and science of animal husbandry.
Before reviewing this current discussion please take a look at our title page we call Thoughts on the Ethical Treatment of Livestock.
[We have included a few photos along with this post; we hope to be able to supplement these in the future.]
Although there are a number of polled strains of cattle and naturally polled individual goats, there is no goat breed that is naturally polled. We routinely disbud goat kids and calves. Here are our reasons for doing so.
- We used to show dairy goats and this required that does be without horns. See breed standards published by the
American Dairy Goat Association.
- We used to milk dairy goats and quickly discovered that it is difficult for horned individuals to negotiate
a milking stanchion.
- Our pastures are fenced with a combination of electrified hi-tensile strands and woven wire. Both are problematic for horned animals. Not only is it dangerous for a goat to get its head tangled but when these fences are electrified, the results may be deadly.
- Horned animals, especially bucks and bulls, can be very dangerous.
- When allowed to retain their horns animals feel that they can hold their own in altercations with other horned individuals. This can set the stage for injurious and potentially deadly interactions.
Keep in mind that we are discussing disbudding and not dehorning. Horns are bony outgrowths of the skull surrounded by a sheath of protein. Two thin layers of bone run beneath the horn, the frontal sinus lies beneath these, and the brain case lies below the frontal sinus. Dehorning a mature goat requires cutting along the top of the frontal sinus, and close to the brain case, to ensure that all the germinal tissue of the horn is removed. Having seen this procedure carried out on goat kids by a fully qualified and highly competent large animal veterinarian we can report that it is very difficult on the animals and should only be used as a practise of last resort. If you feel you’re up to it you can migrate to this description of the procedure (no pictures, just graphic technical detail). Calves, on the other hand, have a deeper frontal sinus and the bottom of the horn lies higher above the top of the brain case. Surgical removal of the horn is possible via either Barnes Type or Tube Type dehorners which are intended to cut well below the horn and the horn bud. Any of the guillotine or lopper-type dehorners are simply intended to cut the horn above the generative level of the skull. There are other dehorning methods which include use of a modified grinder and of caustic paste.
Goat kids and calves are born without horns for obvious reasons. The horn is secreted by generative cells which surround the horn at its base. Early in development the horn bud begins to form the horn and it is sometime later that the developing horn forms a hard connection with the skull. Disbudding is a simple matter of killing this ring of generative cells via heat cautery.
We view the following as negative aspects of disbudding:
- It causes pain and discomfort.
- It involves the use of a hot cautery iron which can be dangerous of not handled properly.
We view the following as positive aspects of disbudding:
- The procedure is completed more quickly (30 seconds at most) than any other method of horn removal.
- The pain and discomfort caused is of much shorter duration than that experienced using other methods of horn removal.
- Risk of infection is low to nonexistent; this cannot be said of most other methods of horn removal.
- There is no follow-up care required; this is not the case for most other methods of horn removal.
- There is no monetary cost of the procedure once the initial purchase of a cautery iron is made.
To disbud goat kids and calves makes sense, to us, in our operation.
Once upon a time, disbudding was like a number of other management practises on the Farm. Initially it seemed difficult and unpleasant, so much so that we called the Veterinarian out to do it. After a time, however, we discovered that by reading, asking questions, and trying it ourselves, disbudding wasn’t really so difficult after all. Here are the steps we follow to disbud goat kids. The same protocol applies to calves with a few modifications (such as size of the cautery iron and method of animal stabilization used during the procedure).
The most critical aspect of this process, one which greatly increases your chances of success in the longterm, is to disbud your kids early. Kids do not have horns at birth; they do have horn buds however and these can be felt by rubbing your fingers across the top of the head. The longer you wait to disbud your kids the more difficult it will be and the greater the chances that scurs will form. [Scurs are finger-nail-like growths which develop from incompletely ablated generative cells of the horn.] We disbud at between 2 and 5 days. If you have a particularly weak kid or one that had a difficult birth, waiting another day or so may be warranted. Experience will teach you that buck kids may have very large horn buds, even at birth, and these will need to be dealt with as soon as possible. Doe kids may have very little evidence of bud development and you may need to examine the girls thoroughly to find them.
The image on another of our page posts show the correct relative positions of the operator and the kid during disbudding. The kid is restrained in a disbudding box which is an essential piece of equipment for this process. [See drawings of a do-it-yourself disbudding box at the bottom of this page.] Successful application of the iron to both buds requires 10 seconds. It is essential that you are able to stabilize the kid’s head, absolutely. You must be determined to keep the head in position and steady. If, at the first protestation from the kid, you loosen your grip you will accomplish two things: you will extend the time required to complete the job and you will run a significant risk of burning either yourself, the kid, or the both of you. Since both of these alternatives are undesirable you must remain determined to keep the kid still by applying firm pressure. Also be aware that it is important to keep the floppy ears of breeds like Nubians and Boers back, away from the iron.
Regarding equipment, we have had good success using a Rhinehart X30 disbudding iron. The important features to consider when purchasing an iron are wattage and ease of handling. Our X30 is rated at 200 watts, gets quite hot and stays hot as long as it is plugged in, even in very cold weather. This unit is small and vented to allow the handle to remain quite cool.
Once the kid is positioned in the disbudding box the operator should sit on the box to keep it closed and to assure the proper orientation with respect to the buds. We see no need to shave the area to be cauterised. We have done so, but found no difference in the result when this step was omitted. It can, however, make the buds easier for the beginner to locate and isolate. Just before application of the iron we feel, with the pointing finger of the left hand (or the hand not used to hold the disbudding iron), for the first bud. This is done to determine its size, location, and degree of development. Once this has been done apply the iron. The amount of time required to kill the generative cells will vary with the degree of bud development; we apply the iron for a slow count of 8-10 seconds. You will find it helps to blow air at the point where the iron meets the scalp as smoke will rise from the cautery site. Disbudding, for those of us at Pairodox, is a sufficiently intense operation that it requires two of us to carry it out; one to hold the animal and to apply the iron, and one to provide the slow count. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to concentrate on both application of the iron and such a simple thing as counting. If you fail to keep the iron in contact with the bud you will end up having to do it again or deal with scurs. It is better to do it once, thoroughly. Equally important as the duration of the application of the iron is the way in which you manipulate the iron while it is being applied. Successful disbudding requires two simultaneous motions on the part of the operator. These are very much like the ones required to spool cotton candy on a stick. Did you ever notice, while waiting in line for your cotton candy, that the person spools the candy by swirling the stick in a large circle about the bowl while simultaneously turning the stick with his or her fingers? This is one action required of disbudding. You need to rotate the iron back and forth (through approximately 90º) with slight pressure. At the same time you must sweep your elbow and fist through a circle while keeping the tip of the iron on the bud. This action ensures that entire circumference of the iron is applied to the entire circumference of the bud. This twofold motion improves the results of the procedure especially in buck kids whose may have particularly large buds which descend toward the forehead.
Once the first bud has been treated you should quickly probe for the second. When you have judged its placement and degree of development you should apply the iron for that second count of 10 seconds. When the second bud has been eliminated remove the kid from the box and apply a coating of a Veterinary spray of your choice – we use Aluspray which cools and seals the cautery site. Naturally, kids object to being disbudded and will struggle and complain. However, after a just a second or two they will go bounding off to play, none the worse for the experience. Keep an eye on the cautery site for a few days; occasionally kids will dislodge a scab and start some bleeding, necessitating another application of antiseptic spray.
A. This image shows what the horn buds of a kid look like at two to three days of age. You can see the buds, but no horns; just the right stage of development for this procedure. We do not generally shave the area to be cauterised however we did in this case to make this image more useful.
B. The second image shows what the buds look like immediately after cautery. Note the copper-colored rings. The cautery sites neither bleed nor swell. Furthermore, the sites are clean and dry. Although the animal will protest when the iron is applied note that in this picture, taken immediately after removal of the iron, the patient is quiet and relaxed.
C. This third image shows what the buds will look like after the application of a protective spray. Healing commences immediately and protective caps will form in a day or two. Don’t pull these off, they will dry and be lost when the cautery areas are fully healed.
D. The fourth image shows the treated buds look like in about a week. Note that the caps are dry and curling at the edges, a good sign of healing and cleanliness.
E. The final image shows the top of the head after approximately four weeks. The caps of fallen off and the area that was subject to cautery is completely healed.