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.

26 thoughts on “Disbudding goat kids and calves

  1. I have a Rhinehart X30 with a 1/4″ pygmy tip. Three kids, three days old. All three have buds coming up through. Yes, they are little boys. I can’t tell if I’m done! I only had it on 3-4 seconds on each side. I clearly have a copperish/white ring, but I’m worried i didn’t go long enough! They are small … should they therefore take less time? Just don’t want to botch the job or make them go through more than needed! I put them back with Mom for now! Any help appreciated! Must I burn THROUGH the bud?

    • Hey there Joel … even without seeing the little guys I’d have to point out that 3-4 seconds on each side simply isn’t enough time to either completely ablate the cells which generate the bud or for complete coverage around bud. The fact that these are pigmies doesn’t necessarily mean that disbudding using this technique should take less time. These ARE pygmy goats … aren’t they? I ask because I question the use of the pigmy tip. Two comments confuse me … first you say that the buds are coming up through … do you mean the horns themselves have erupted through the skin? And then you ask, must you burn through the bud … what you’re trying to do is kill the cells which generate the horn … these make up what is called the horn bud. It seems to me that you’ve got two choices; you can either watch bud development/horn growth carefully over the next week or so. If all is quiet then you know you’ve done the job. Keep in mind though that if growth does continue, then you’re having to use the iron again when the little guys are that much older. Your other option is to treat the guys again in the morning, this time being sure that you’re on for a good count of eight seconds – I know it’s tough … but a full count prevents having to reburn. Also … if these are in fact pigmies … does the circumference of the tip comfortably surround the bud? If not, I’d remove the tip and go with the 1/2″ (or is it 3/4″) that is standard on the X30. Finally … and again, regarding the pygmy tip, I just looked at them at the Jeffer’s website and they look AWFULLY SMALL. Be sure that the circumference completely and comfortably surrounds the base of the bud … perhaps even a bit ‘out’ from it … that band of horn-generating-cells can be significant. Make sure you’re getting good coverage. Let me know how you make out. Dave

      • Yes, pigmys. No horn exposed. Just horn bud, like hard pimple. I guess I’ve got to do it right today! The tip seems a hair small but, i think it will work. The iron left a spot just bigger than a dime. No dark spot in middle like the bigger dehorners. 1/4″ tip really got the center of the bud, but I am worried about the edges as you noted. Can’t re-do till this afternoon. Will this cause any problems? First time goat disbudding thanks.

        • There shouldn’t be any difficulty waiting for this afternoon … let me know how it goes … and, the very best of luck. This is a learning process Joel … each time you do this it’ll be easier and easier. Let me know how it goes. D

          • I suppose my conservative thinking needs to be set aside when doing this. I guess asking is better than making mistakes. Appreciate the help and I’ll let yall know how I do with them this afternoon.

      • Ok, i did it right, I think. Looks beautiful considering what were doing. Much different results from yesterday. No problems. My only concern is the size of the irons tip, 1/4″ ID. It seems as if it has done a perfect job however. No complaints, stayed plenty hot/cherry red for all three kids. I will let you know official results in the near future. Thanks for all the help. Joel

        • Yeah .. the diameter of the iron tip is critical. Look here … http://www.jefferspet.com/x-30-electric-dehorner/camid/liv/cp/0029537/ … on the X30 Jeffers shows a 9/16″ ID tip (that’s the one I use), a 3/8″ ID tip, and a 1/4″ ID tip … the latter two are billed for Pygmy goats. You be the judge … keeping in mind that the ring of cells which actually generates the horn lays at some distance from the center of the bud. If you look closely this ring of tissue looks kind of like the cuticle at the base of your fingernails. This is what you’ve got to get rid of. You are the best one qualified to judge how far out that ring is … and therefore which ID tip you should be using. From what you’ve said however it sounds as if you did a good and thorough job this afternoon. Many congratulations! Buck kids are tough … does are much easier. Please do get back in touch when those treatment sites have healed over. D

    • Ok … Ok … if these are indeed pygmies … you can go for a bit less time. My am experienced with Saanens and I never had a problem with even the smallest one of that breed. If you think the skull thickness of these little guys is that much thinner, I’d apply the iron for a bit less time. And keep the iron rotating as this dissipates the heat. D

    • Hey there Trina … of course you CAN use caustic paste but everything I’ve read or heard argues AGAINST its use. The paste can, in a number of circumstances, become somewhat runny and end up in the eyes of the little ones and do quite a lot of damage. In any case four weeks is awfully old. I’m guessing at this point you are working with a case of dehorning and NOT disbudding. To answer your question … I would avoid the use of caustic paste … but that is simply my opinion. Surgical removal of horns is a very nasty business and I’d think long and hard about going down that avenue. Dave

      • Another thought … you could consider ‘banding’ these older animals if the horns are large enough to allow for it. There are several places around the internet which describe the process. D

  2. I have three just-weened Alpines. Horns are around 2″ on the two does and 1 ” on the buck. Is it too late to disbud them? If it isn’t how should I go about it with the current nubs that are growing?

    • Hey Anthony. It is important to distinguish between ‘disbudding’ and ‘dehorning’. Disbudding (via heat cautery) destroys the horn bud which includes the cells which are responsible for the development of the horn itself. This happens BEFORE eruption of the horn. Disbudding eliminates the tissue responsible for horn growth. Dehorning, in contrast, involves surgical removal of the horn once it has begun to develop. I’m guessing your animals are 6-8 weeks old at this point and, as such, have rapidly growing horns. The time to disbud has long passed. In my experience you have only one option if you really want those horns gone … and that is surgery. I can tell you from personal experience that the surgical removal of horns in goats is a very difficult business indeed. The caprine horn sinus is quite shallow (unlike that in a cow) and surgical removal should only be attempted by a highly experienced veterinarian. At next year’s kidding having the disbudding iron ready to roll and treat the kids at 24-36 hours. Let me know if you’ve got any other questions I can help with. D

  3. I have the same issues as other posters. I disbudded for the first time this year and my kids were about 12 days old. I didn’t have the means to do them sooner, although I would have preferred that approach. Now about about 4 weeks old, my buck have rather large bumps. I tried to re burn with mixed results. I think I want to try again on the one buck (that is already sold). The problem is that my iron doesn’t seem to be going around the entire horn base. I’ll try to describe: the bump that was growing out was large and rounded, not pointy like a horn, but certainly horn growth. I centered my iron on the bump for the second attempt at disbudding,and I think I got all the way to the skull, but there are edges that sort of stick up around the copper ring. Does that make sense? I tried to do a figure 8 type pattern to expand the area that I was covering with the iron, but had a hard time burning through some tissue where the two circles would intersect. When I feel around the base of where I burned, it seems to be raised (kind of like the edge of a crater with a dip in the center). Do you think that I should do it again to ensure no scurs? How do I make sure I get the edges completely? I’m using the X30 and these are Alpine kids. My friend and go-to goat gal is currently out of town for me to ask questions. I felt fairly confident that I disbudded correctly on my first attempt, but obviously I did not get them done completely…I also re did another buck kid (who seemed to have smaller bumps of re-growth) and one of the does. I did the second attempt Sunday–how soon can I try again on the one kid whose head is kind of a mess right now??

    • I’m sorry you’re having difficulty Amanda. I know you couldn’t get to the bucks sooner … but it is really important to disbud those little guys, especially ones with rapidly-growing buds … as yours seemed to be … within a day or so of kidding. The fact that they had ‘large bumps’ suggests that significant horn growth had already commenced and that the disbudding boat had already departed. Have you seen the buck kid attachment for the X50 (http://www.caprinesupply.com/products/kid-raising/disbudding/buck-caprine-tip-for-x50.html)? It increases the coverage area a bit. I use an X30 without difficulty. If you’ve waited a bit too long and the basal area of the bud is quite large, you have to be sure to manipulate the iron around the entire circumference of the bud. Also, keep in mind that that basal ring is thicker now … and you have to account for this by making your ring wider as well. I think what you’re describing is the granulating edge of the ring that you’ve burned. And, if that’s the case you should be good to go. These may also simply be the dried and crusty burn margins which is OK too. As far as retreating an area … as long as the spot has scabbed or granulated over you’re OK to re-treat. Sometimes it is simply easier to wait and see where the scurs are going to be a problem and simply spot-treat those areas. I know you’d like to have a nice clean head on the kids you’re going to sell … but sometimes scurs cannot be avoided and need to be dealt with down-the-road. Having said that, larger buck kids are more difficult to keep still. So, I think the bottom line is that these first few trials have been a valuable learning experience. Get at the next kids within 24-48 hours. Let me know if I can be of any further help. D

  4. I did my baby goat kids at 7 days, but didn’t get the full cooper circle. Finally stopped trying. Should I do them again now or wait and see if horns start to grow?

    • I’m not sure what you mean when you say you ‘finally stopped trying.’ Did you treat and then retreat without seeing a complete ring? If you applied the iron for 8-10 seconds and still didn’t see a ring I would guess that the ring itself was simply ablated. Did you apply the iron with good downward pressure? Was your iron good and hot (cherry red)? [To check the temperature on my X30 I touch the tip to a piece of wood … if the iron can burn a clear, black, ring quickly … I know we’re ready to go.] If these are does I think I’d wait … my guess is that you’re OK. If these are bucks I’d consider touching up now. On the other hand, you can always wait to watch for scurs but keep in mind that your animals may not fit your box once you decide to remove these. Was this your first disbudding? If so, congratulations. If I can be of any further help, please let me know. D

    • Also … you shouldn’t worry about treating sooner than 7 days … just a day or so is AOK as long as the little ones are on their feet and have bonded well with Mom. Sometimes the buds on does are tough to find at 1 or 2 days. In these cases you can wait a day or so more. Buds usually present on buck kids at birth … so if they’re up and doing well on day 2 you should treat then. Don’t give the buds any more time to develop then you must. D

  5. This is one of the best write-ups that I have seen and believe me I have seen a bunch in trying to prepare for our first time.

    • Hey Mike … so glad this was useful for you. If ever … and I really mean ever … have a question about this process please, please do not hesitate to contact me either via this blog or by email. Disbudding the first time is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. I should say that working up your courage to do it is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do … actually doing it isn’t that bad. And, the second time is a relative breeze. The most important thing is to do it right. Don’t worry that you’re going to hurt the little kid … you won’t … trust me. Be sure to burn each bud for the full 8 seconds, and be sure to have someone counting for you as you apply the iron. The very best of luck … I’m sure you’ll do just fine. And please do get back in touch if there are questions. Did you take a look at the images we provided as well (a page of a pictorial view of disbudding)? Dave S.

  6. You gave a great writeup on disbudding goats, but nothing on calves. What is different that I need to know? Have done many goat babies but have a pregnant cow and am trying to be prepared to disbud the calf with a hot disbuding iron. What do i do different? Thank you. Ruth

    • Ruth. There is really no difference when it comes to technique – and in my experience bovines are actually easier than goats to disbud. Because of the animal’s size and strength you can’t use a disbudding box and will need to be sure the calf is securely tied with a halter. The only other significant difference is the iron to be used. The Rhinehart X30 iron has a 1/2 tip specially designed for goats; this won’t do a very good job in your calf – you’ll want to get hold of a Rhinehart X50. The X50 is a slightly larger instrument with higher wattage but why it’s better for calves is because the business end of the iron treats much more flat surface. Take a look at these at some place like NASCO or Hoegger supply (both online) and you’ll see that the tips are much different. Also, because of the larger treated surface with the X50 you’ll want to be sure to use something like Aluspray to seal the treated sites. Thanks very much for reading and commenting on this particular blog post. You are the very person to do so. I was sure that this section of my blog had been lost to most readers. I’m glad you found it. Thanks again and please let me know if you’ve got any other questions – always glad to help where and when I can. D

      • I disbudded my first male goats at 2 wks old. They are now 7 wks old and there are little horns growing from the back of the horn base. Can I disbudd them again? If so, would I use the same procedure I did at the initial disbudding? How long can the horns, or scurs, be before it isn’t safe to disbud again? Thank you. Rachel

        • Hey Rachel,

          Thanks for getting in touch. You can certainly go after those scurs with your iron – no problem. As far as procedure is concerned you don’t have to treat that portion of the bud which you seem to have ‘gotten.’ To make the job easier you should remove the scur just before you apply the iron. Simply use a pair of pliers and twist it off. It’ll bleed, but the hot iron will take care of that almost immediately. Buck kids can be very difficult to get on the first try. You mentioned that you had waited until they were two weeks old. If you had felt for the buds on the day they were born you would have felt them – they were there. It is really important to get to little bucks quickly – we usually work on them on day two or three. The bud is very much underway by two weeks! You can certainly keep at the scurs as long as the kid is young (small) enough for you to handle him safely – be sure to use a disbudding box to stabilize the patient. Buck kid disbudding points (for your iron … if you’ve got an X50) are available but I don’t see that using them makes any difference. If you’ve got an X30 or something like it you just have to be sure that you get full coverage – especially down over the eyes and toward the back of the head (which seems to be the area where you’ve got growth). Treat for a full count of 10 … I know it’s hard … but it’s important. So, go ahead and treat them again … and, good luck. Please let me know if I can be of any further help or assistance. Dave

          • Hi there. I have dehorned female kids that have had up to 2″ horns. Their horns are usually much thinner than males. Shave the horn area. Clip off the horn with clean, sharp clippers. Use the horn burner in the usual manner but take your time and burn the area until you get the copper ring. Do not hold the burner down for a more than a few seconds. Apply the iron as many times as you need to. This will take longer to achieve the copper ring. This isn’t a race. Let their head cool off. I’ve even used cold clothes soaked in ice water to cool their heads. Roll the burner over the top of the horn area to stop any bleeding. Place a fan near you to blow the smoke away. It’s best to get the horns off when they are small but sometimes these tasks are not done at the right time.

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