Confronting My Beliefs

My photos are embedded with simple date stamp:

April 23, 2010.

Impersonal and detached, it reveals none of the emotions that have smoldered since then....

Last spring, I was invited on a 3 day food and farm media trip and until this stop, I had bucolic visions of lavender farms and cow-to-curd cheese makers. Five of us would pile in the van, and in near unison, agree each stop was more delicious than the last.

While I was raised in the Midwest surrounded by major plots of farmland, my family is several generations removed from this life. I don't pretend to understand the difficult choices one makes to maintain a viable farm. I make no judgments. This is how you choose to run your business. I'm just here to learn.

And yet...on April 23, 2010, my aspirational beliefs...took a swift hit to the gut.

The five of us, plus our hosts, headed into the tasting room.

On this farm, they raise both goats and jersey cows for milk production. An army of toothpick-skewered cheese samples stood before us.

The cheese writer tossed her toothpick in the waste bin, and noted the distinct "off" flavor in their goat cheese. When asked about it, she explained, "When male goats aren't separated from lactating females, the phermones get into the milk and make it taste super goaty." She summed, "It's why a lot of people don't like goat cheese, I think. It's pretty mean."

As our group headed into the barn, I made a mental note.

Baby goats! An attempt to pet them, turned into a suckling fest. Fingers are a poor substitute for milky mama teets, but I was giggling like a schoolgirl here.

The adult goats were extremely curious...and made every attempt to nibble at my notebook. Deep in my baby goat euphoria, it took a moment to register....

What's wrong with this picture?

This goat...has no horns!

As she lunges for my notebook, I get a closer look:

A view from above: the goat's head

I asked about their hornless goats. The farmer tells me, he and his daughter recently removed the horns from his entire herd. Nonchalantly, he explained: they put the goat to sleep, then used a hairpin-shaped branding iron to remove the horns, and cauterize the wound. Cauterizing (burning) the wound does two things: 1. It stops the bleeding. 2. And it prevents the horns from growing back.

I could not get this image out of my mind.

Over the course of several months, I began researching this process. Normally dehorning is done early in a goat's life, typically in the first two weeks. (WARNING: Graphic video.)

However, in the adult stage, two nerves and a series of arteries run through the horns. Not only is horn removal in adult goats significantly more painful, it creates holes in the skull, leaving the brain exposed to dust and potential fly larva infestations. The skull eventually heals, but it's a slow process.

The adult dehorning process, as explained by Dan Miller, DMV, PhD:

To dehorn an adult animal, chemical restraint is necessary.

Use either a flexible hacksaw or, preferably, obstetrical wire to remove the horn at its base, including a circle of skin completely surrounding the base of the horn. This allows you to make a cut that follows the curvature of the skull thereby decreasing the chances of entering the brain cavity. Make sure you remove at least a thin strip of skin from all around the base. If any of this germinal tissue remains, it will produce scurs.

In the skin between and slightly behind the horns are the two musk glands responsible for the characteristic buck odor. Unless one wants the buck to smell good to the does, these glands are also removed at dehorning/disbudding.

In removing the horn you will cut several arteries that run within the bone itself. Grasp these arteries with a forceps and pull them until they break off inside the bone. The clot that forms will prevent further bleeding. You will have created a hole into the frontal sinus. Cover or plug the hole with clean gauze that is changed daily until the wound heals.

At the point where the horn is attached to the skull there are two full layers or sheets of bone forming the roof and floor of the frontal sinus. Immediately under the floor of the frontal sinus is the brain cavity. Since the base of the goat horn is so broad, a flat plane that would remove enough germinal tissue to prevent scur formation would also remove a piece of the brain. Therefore, the cut needs to be curved so that only the outer layer of the skull is removed.

This hole will require a long time to heal shut, but eventually it will fill with bone and be covered with skin. For this reason dehorning is best done soon after the fly season is over to prevent fly maggots from appearing on the wound or in the sinus. Another reason to keep it covered is to prevent dust and hay chaff from falling into the sinus cavity and causing an infection.

All evidence suggests dehorning young goats is the preferred method, yet I'm wondering why this is a common practice. Am I just a naive city girl, shielded from the reality of livestock rearing?

I have no problem watching butchers cut animals into edible pieces, and once helped saw a pig skull in half. But these animals were dead.

Dehorning live animals?

It's an acceptable practice...but should it be?

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