If you ask a goat breeder to list his or her least favorite chores, disbudding is sure to be near, if not at, the top of that list. Disbudding is the process by which horn-producing cells are killed. A horn, be it on a goat, cow or African buffalo, is living bone sheathed in keratin. The corium, a ring of specialized cells encircling the horn's base where it intersects the skin, is responsible for its growth. Destroy the corium and you destroy the animal's ability to produce horns. Horns serve no purpose in a domestic goat herd, except to traumatize herd mates, two-legged caretakers and the horned individual when its head and a fence entwine. Goats with horns are usually not allowed in shows and are worth significantly less should you consider selling down the road. Hence, disbudding has become common practice.
Disbudding with an electric iron is the most viable, humane and economical method out there.
Photo from As The Goat World Turns, www.asthegoatworldturns.com.
When you rub your finger over a kid's head and feel a solid bump or nub, it is time to act. At this point, the kid is typically between the age of 3 and 7 days old, but breeders report some kids can be up to 3 weeks of age. Growth rates vary among individuals and between sexes and species, so the age at which they are ready is not set in stone. It is important to stress that timeliness is critical, for the longer you delay, the higher the risk of scurs. Scurs are abnormal bone growths that occur when the corium is only partially compromised. They can be negligible in size or they can be quite extensive, malformed and ultimately quite troublesome for both you and the goat, so it is best to avoid them.
Before you start, make sure you and the kids are fully prepared. The first thing is to make sure they are up to snuff on tetanus. If they didn't come from vaccinated does or you question the amount of colostrum they received, you'll want to administer a shot (250 IU) of tetanus antitoxin. You'll also want to have a way of safely holding and securing the kid. It can be a homemade holding crate designed for such purposes, called a disbudding box, or a large swaddling towel if someone is willing to hold them. Clippers are useful for shaving hair around and on the horn buds. If you forego shaving, your accuracy may be compromised, the procedure might take longer, and you will conduct it under a veil of stinking smoke. Experienced folks recommend taking the time to shave.
The electric disbudding iron lies at the heart of this procedure. It is the tool that gets this unsavory job done and is not something you want to scrimp on. (Plan on spending $100 for the Rhinehart X-50 and Rhinehart X-30, popular models that come highly recommended.) These units attain temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so you want to make sure you have a large coffee can or metal tray that can cradle the iron when it is plugged in. Once it is plugged in, maximum, optimal temperature is typically reached within 15 minutes. To test, press the tip onto a piece of scrap wood. If after six or seven seconds it does not burn a solid black ring, the iron is not hot enough. The most common mistake is to use the iron before it has reached maximum temperature.
Once the kid has been secured and the iron is properly heated, place the iron's tip over the horn bud and apply light pressure for seven to 10 seconds. The amount of time depends on a number of variables, including the quality of the iron, how hot you're letting it get, how long your extension cord is, how windy and cold it is, and the extent to which horn buds have developed. Gently rock the iron back and forth or slowly turn the iron in a clockwise manner. After that initial burn, pull the iron away and assess. Most likely you'll realize you need to reapply. Wait 30 seconds before you do. If you apply too much heat in a short amount of time, the animal's brain can swell. Reapply the iron for another five to 10 seconds, then reassess. You may need to apply a third time. What you're looking for is a clear, solid ring around the horn bud. Some folks describe it as copper colored, others as the color of new leather. Regardless, this ring is evidence that the corium has been destroyed. At this point you can remove the horn buds by scraping the iron over them.
Apply an antiseptic to avoid infection and repel flies, and provide a bottle or allow the youngster to feed from its mother. Nursing is the best form of comfort and reassurance you can provide. (Consolation can be taken in the fact that a properly preheated iron is so hot it cauterizes nociceptors, nerve endings that surround the horn bud and signal the perception of pain. When nociceptors are cauterized, the amount of pain felt by the animal is significantly reduced.) The burned bud area will scab within a couple of days, and those scabs will start to fall off within a month.
Disbudding is not enjoyable for the farmer or goat, nor is it pretty, but the alternatives are even less so. Dehorning paste, a caustic acid that burns and kills the corium, can potentially get in the animal's eyes and cause blindness, burn attendants if it gets on their skin, or be lapped by the dam if care is not taken. A second more costly and inconvenient alternative is to have your veterinarian surgically remove the horn buds. If you are patient and take the time to do it right, disbudding with an electric iron is the most viable, humane and economical method out there.
The author, a regular contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.