My very first memory of cows and horns was of the close call I had with Edith as a preschooler. Edith was a big black cow and the only cow in the herd with horns. One of the cows my parents bought when they started farming, Edith still had horns when she arrived on our farm.
The day of my incident, Edith was standing in our barn's No. 8 spot, which was alongside the north wall. In front of the No. 8 stall, there was a small door that allowed access to the manger. I had used that door dozens of times to run in and out of the barn while my parents did chores.
As I paused in front of Edith to open the door to go back outside, Edith tossed her head at me and hit me with her horn. The tip of her right horn connected with my back, leaving a big scrape from my hip to my armpit. I hit the wall and then fell out the door.
The next week, Dad had the vet out to cut Edith's horns off.
I learned two lessons from Edith: Horns are dangerous and it's best to dehorn cattle as young as possible.
Glen and I use a disbudder to dehorn our calves. Compared to the other methods we used growing up and the methods we've tried since we started farming, we like this method best.
We tried using dehorning paste when we first started farming, because that was the recommendation from several industry professionals. I liked the idea, but the paste always got all over everything and too many heifers ended up with scurs. And I've seen far too many cows use their scur just as aggressively as a full-grown horn to tolerate them. (We later learned from Glen's cousin that covering the paste with a piece of duct tape keeps calves from rubbing the paste all over each other.)
Then we were introduced to a Portasol disbudder when we worked for Sam and Jane. I was apprehensive about the butane-powered device, but after I saw how little the calves seemed to be bothered by the process, I was sold. We bought one for ourselves and have used that ever since.
We dehorn calves while they are still in the automatic calf feeder pen. I read somewhere once that calves that still have access to milk handle dehorning better than weaned calves. Plus, the disbudder works the best when calves are 1 to 2 months old.
Glen and I were dehorning a group of calves last month. And for the first time, thanks to polled genetics, not every calf had to be dehorned.
Last year, Ron, our relief milker, had commented that the cows in Gypsie's family had nicely shaped heads that would look nice polled. Glen told Ron to pick out a polled bull to use on Georgia, one of Gypsie's daughters, and we'd give it a try. Ron came back the next week with a suggestion for a polled bull and Glen ordered 20 units.
Georgia's fancy little heifer calf, Goldie, was born last September, but she wasn't polled. Neither were the other two fall heifer calves out of that same bull.
But when we were dehorning that last group of calves, I heard Glen say as he prepared to dehorn Lanky, "Well, I'll be. She doesn't have horns!"
I ran to double-check Lanky's sire in the computer. Sure enough, she was out of the polled bull that Ron had picked. Heterozygous polled bulls (Pp) are supposed to throw 50 percent polled calves; the odds were finally in our favor.
It turned out that Madison and Macadamia are polled as well. I added a P to each of their ear tags and made a note in their cow files.
All totaled, we've had 14 calves out of that bull so far. Three of the eight heifer calves are polled. I didn't think to check any of the bull calves before we sold them, but I hope somewhere there's a calf raiser who ended up with a couple polled calves.
We're pretty excited to have polled heifers in the herd. Dehorning with genetics sure beats dehorning using traditional methods. And since the polled gene is dominant and the horned gene is recessive, each calf only needs one copy of the polled gene to be polled; so it doesn't take multiple generations to see the results of selecting for polled.
After hearing Glen say, "That's awesome!" countless times following the discovery of each polled calf, I think he will be taking a closer look at some of the other polled bulls. There are even some homozygous polled bulls (PP) available - we could dehorn our whole herd in one generation. That probably won't happen, since Glen is quite particular about which bulls we use, but it's an encouraging thought.
Who knows, maybe we won't have any calves to dehorn in 10 years.