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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 15:46

Horn removal task best done early and well

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I have learned, yet again, the virtues of doing something right the first time. My sloppiness was a bloody and painful lesson for two young goats this past weekend. It was an experience I could have spared them — and me — by giving proper and prompt attention to their horns just after they were born late last winter.

Ideally, within a few days of a kid’s birth, if you plan to burn off horn buds you do so then. These are dairy goats; horns on dairy goats are dangerous for everyone involved. Brenda, an experienced goat keeper who is kind enough to come help me with horn burning and on horn-removal days, learned this lesson the hard way. Just last week she had a horned kid on her farm pop its head up unexpectedly, catching her with its stubby weapon just below the left eye. Half an inch higher, and this might have been a different, more serious, story.

Goats not properly disbudded grow scurs, or abnormal-looking horns. This is particularly difficult to prevent in male goats even when proper disbudding occurs. In female kids, however, you can generally hinder scurs by early and thorough disbudding.

This helps protect them from each other during the inevitable challenges for dominance in the barnyard. Chickens, I’ve discovered, have nothing on goats when it comes to establishing pecking orders. Someone gets to be queen, and everyone else tries not to be the actual bottom goat on the goat-yard totem pole. Last to get food, first to get butted out of the way when treats are being handed out — it plainly sucks to be bottom goat.

We’ve also had goats with long scurs somehow manage to get their heads through the pig-wire fence enclosure, and of course be absolutely unable to pull their heads back out once they’ve discovered that no, the grass truly isn’t greener on the other side. In fact, it’s much browner and all-around less juicy and tasty. That makes for a long, frightening day for the goat involved, and it lasts until someone driving on the road by the barn spots and frees the unfortunate victim, by then traumatized and deeply resentful over the day’s entrapment.

With several of the kids born last March and April, I was a week or so late getting to disbudding. This is an unpleasant task. It’s easily forgotten and postponed in the joy of watching new kids find their legs and a new world. It simply isn’t fun to take them, screaming in unhappiness, from their bawling mothers and apply a hot piece of metal — several times — to the tops of their tiny, precious heads. The smell of burning horn combined with the cries of pain is excruciating.

The experience, when I finally did get around to disbudding, reminded me of a few years spent living on a cattle ranch in Mississippi when I was a young child, not long before my family moved to Bryson City. I vaguely remember screaming calves on the ranch being castrated, to my four- or five-year-old self’s vast unhappiness (I’m sure it was more terrible for them, but it was bad enough for me). At the time, of course, I lacked the adult ability and understanding to justify such horrors. It left me with bad memories, and I had my own little post-traumatic stress disorder memory attack when disbudding kids.

These past few months, despite my best efforts not to notice, scurs emerged on little Coreopsis and her half sister, Dandelion. Both their mothers were sold earlier this year, and now provide ample milk and goat entertainment to a family in the Balsam community.

Coreopsis is the hardy sort, and recovered quickly from her sudden plunge into orphan-hood. Dandelion has had a more difficult time.

Coreopsis likes to be petted and loved upon, given treats and talked to, and pushes her way through the goat crowd for attention; shyer Dandelion, just in the past few weeks, would finally accept an alfalfa cube from someone’s hand. If, that is, the presenter stood on the other side of the fence and extended their arm as far out as possible  — Dandelion, extending her long neck in turn as far as possible from her trembling body, would snatch the yummy green cube … if you didn’t suddenly blink or make similar threatening moves and scare her away first.

That being the case, it was of course almost no trouble to remove Coreopsis’ scur, but Dandelion’s was a doozy. One snip and Coreopsis was done; 50 snips and an escape, chase and tackle later, and Dandelion had been done, too.

“That went well,” Brenda said to me when Dandelion was finally released. “Next spring, we disbud within three days of their being born — three days. I mean it.”

I mean it, too. Coreopsis recovered her nerves within a couple hours. Two days later, and Dandelion is still shattered, shivering and hiding under a picnic-table-turned-goat-jungle-gym, reluctant to approach within 50 feet of me. And I don’t blame her a bit — I bet those calves in Mississippi never forgave the ranch’s owners, either.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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