This story was originally published in September of 2021.
Goats can wreak havoc around the farm with their horns, breaking through fences, impaling their ungulate brethren and even violently butting unsuspecting farmers.
The decision about whether to prevent goats from growing their horns by “disbudding” them is not one that farmers take lightly, but ultimately comes down to what is best for the animals’ safety.
Disbudding is the process of removing the tissues that will form horns on goat kids — also known as “buds” — before they get a chance to implant on the skull. Disbudding usually occurs in the first week of a goat kid’s life.
“It’s called disbudding instead of dehorning because the growth nodules haven’t rooted into the skull yet. That doesn’t start until about three weeks of age,” said Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “If you get them out when they’re young, it’s a lot easier and less painful to dehorn them than after they implant them.”
Some farmers prefer not to disbud their goats for a simple reason: it can be painful for the kids. The process is normally done using hot irons to burn off the cells that form into horns.
“[The disbudding iron] looks like a big socket wrench but it has a hollow end that gets red hot so it cauterizes as it scoops out the bud and burns out the horn tissue,” Knight said. “You can see where that would be painful for the animals.”
Aaron Grim, owner of Cosmic Goat Farm and Creamery in Litchfield, does not disbud his goats.
“We generally avoid any kind of physical alteration to our animals,” Grim said. “And to us, goats just aren’t goats without their horns. They scratch themselves with them, skirmish with each other to establish their hierarchy, and even rub hard-to-reach spots on the horns of others.”
Practically, a goat’s horns are also a useful handle for wrangling the unruly animal.
Disbudding, though, has its own functionalities. Aside from the fact that goats’ “playful behavior” can include headbutting and hooking farmers’ kneecaps with their horns, Knight said goats have a tendency to stick their heads where they don’t belong — namely, through fences.
“It’s remarkably easy for them to get their heads in and remarkably difficult to get their heads out,” Knight said. “On a larger landscape those animals can die from dehydration or strangle themselves.”
Hope Hall, co-owner of Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland, said that the decision to disbud the goats that she keeps on her farm was not taken lightly. After all, the no-cull farm prides itself on humane practices, and the idea of causing her kids any amount of pain was tough to bear.
After doing some research and speaking with her veterinarian at Annabessacook Veterinary Clinic in Monmouth, she realized that it would be safer for her goats to disbud them. Aside from the fence issue, Hall worried about one goat injuring another with its horns — a wound that, the vet explained, can be especially difficult to heal because of its irregularity.
Plus, Hall often has visitors to her farm around the goats.
But while most farmers will disbud goats themselves with a disbudding iron, Hall had the veterinarian do it, which included giving the goats nerve blockers to put them to sleep for the procedure.
Another reason Hall entrusts her vets with the process is because a botched disbudding can leave the goats with bits of horn tissue that can grow into incomplete “scurs” or even full horns later in the animal’s life.
Hall also explored breeding with “polled” goats, or ones that have been bred not to have horns.
“I would say about half of the babies born to a polled goat do not have to be disbudded and do not grow horns naturally, which is an obvious benefit to farms that do not want horns.”
Homesteaders cannot only breed polled goats though because breeding them together creates a chance that the offspring will be hermaphroditic and sterile, Hall said. It’s a risk that some goat farmers (particularly dairy farmers) are not willing to take.
Ultimately, whether disbudding is right for a goat depends on the farm. Knight said that dairy farmers will often disbud their goats because they are handling them so regularly, but smaller homesteads may not.
“On a small Maine homestead you shouldn’t go that long without seeing your animals,” Knight said. “But then it becomes a thing where you have to go around two or three times a day to get goats out of fences.”