There are few things on this earth that I hate as much as disbudding goats. Although it’s gotten easier with experience, it still makes me a little sick to my stomach when I realize the time has come. Disbudding is the act of burning the area around the goat’s horn bud with a very hot iron to prevent horns from growing. It is not pleasant for the goat, and it’s not pleasant for the person doing it, either. It is, however, a necessary evil – at least in my opinion.
So why not let the goats just have their horns? I get that question all the time. In fact, my buck Axle came to me with horns, and they’ve been relatively little trouble. But horns can be a major issue for several reasons, and if you want to ensure your goat has a long and happy life, getting rid of the horns can be a major factor. For one thing, people who want goats for pets or 4H generally don’t want a goat with horns. Not disbudding can limit your resale options to the meat market pretty quickly. Goats with horns can also injure or kill other goats in a herd much easier than goats without horns, not to mention hurting people and other animals. Furthermore, horns can be a danger to the goat that’s wearing them. A horned goat that sticks its head through a fence to get tasty treats on the other side may not be able to get its head back through if the horns are in the way. Goats have strangled themselves to death after catching their horns in fences. I don’t want any of my goats to meet that fate.
Horn removal is possible once the goat is older, however it has to be done surgically, there’s a greater risk of infection, and really, there’s no reason to wait. Disbudding is horrible, but it lasts a total of 20 seconds, after which the goats go right back to their mom and act like nothing ever happened. Personally I believe that 20 seconds of pain is well worth a lifetime of gain. And so I disbud. The goats should be done when they’re only a few days old, as soon as you can clearly feel the buds. Waiting too long will result in incomplete or ineffective disbudding and the growth of scurs.
As much as I make this sound like a big deal, the reality is that it was pretty quick and uneventful this time around. The kids squirmed a little, but none of them made a peep during the process. I think Troy was right when he suggested that we’re less nervous now, and the kids are less traumatized because we’re not passing our anxiety on to them. I’ll never try to pretend it’s a walk in the park, but once you get the hang of it, it’s over and done without too much fuss.
I always start the disbudding process by watching a couple of videos of it on Youtube. Besides refreshing my memory (seeing as it’s been a year since the last time we did it), it also prepares me again for the kid’s reactions. Especially for someone disbudding for the first time, watching it first is a must. You don’t want to get 2 seconds into it and freak out because you weren’t prepared for the reality. One thing you don’t get from the videos is the horrible smell of burning flesh and hair. It will stay in your nostril for days. I won’t pretend you’ll get used to that… you won’t, you just have to suck it up.
There’s one big difference between the way we do it and the way you’ll see it done in the videos – we don’t use a box to hold the kid. Most people prefer to use a specially built disbudding box that immobilizes the kid during the process. This is definitely safer for the human hands involved. Although we have a disbudding box, we’ve discovered that everything goes much more smoothly if Troy holds the kid on his lap tightly pressed against him and steadies the head with his hands while I burn the buds. The kids seem to be much less traumatized this way, and as a result, so are we. Troy wears his welding gloves while holding the kid so that if I do slip with the iron I’m not going to take a chunk out of his hand.
Once I’m ready, we get to work. So here’s how to disbud a kid.
What you need:
- A disbudding iron specially made for smaller animals like goats.
- A strong person to hold the goat, or a disbudding box, or both (if it’s your first time, you may need a strong person to hold you once you’ve finished.)
- A pair of clippers that will remove the hair down to the skin
- A piece of wood
- Some people like to have a veterinary anti-inflammatory on hand – just in case
How to do it:
- Plug in your iron and let it get very hot. Use the piece of wood to test it. When you can press it against the wood and leave a dark burn ring very quickly, it’s ready.
- Shave the area around your kid’s buds using the electric clippers. We usually shave a bit extra. The kid will look silly, but as long as you keep mirrors out of the barn it shouldn’t be an issue. Some people will disbud without shaving the head. If you don’t mind the smell of burning hair, I guess that’s ok, but it also means there’s an extra layer to burn, making the iron a little less efficient. I would never disbud without clipping first. Interestingly, you may find that the kid kicks up a bigger stink when you’re clipping the hair than it does when you’re burning the horns.
- Either place the kid in the disbudding box, or have someone hold it very securely. Locate the horn buds on either side of the head. Take a deep breath and press the hot iron over one of the horn buds. Keep it pressed against the skull for about 10 seconds, rotating it slightly over the horn if necessary to ensure an even burn all the way around. Do not burn too long… if you overheat the skull the kid’s brain can swell causing damage or death. Examine the burn to ensure that you have a complete copper or white circle all the way around the bud.
- Let the skull cool down for several minutes before you burn the second bud to prevent overheating. This also gives the iron time to come back up to full temperature.
- Once both buds are burned, some people will burn the caps as well by pressing the side of the iron on top of the buds for a few seconds. I find that my iron burns the caps well enough during the initial burn. Either way, eventually these caps will pop off and may bleed a little. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they stay clean. I’ve never found it necessary to treat them with anything, they just scab over and heal as long as they’re clean.
As soon as you’re done give the kid back to its mom and you’ll be surprised at how quickly it forgets what you’ve done to it. I honestly think that disbudding is more traumatic for the humans than it is for the goats. That’s it, you’re finished. Once you’ve disbudded a few kids it gets easier, I promise. We didn’t have anyone to show us our first time around, which made it much more terrifying, but if you can find someone with experience to help you out, I’d highly recommend it. No more horny goats (except Axle). Yay!