Another important decision when starting with goats is whether to choose horned, disbudded, or polled goats. Many people are surprised to learn that most goats are born naturally horned (both males and females), but that many dairy goat owners consider horns a detriment. So, they’re frequently removed when the kids are only a few days old using a process called disbudding.
It’s not uncommon for owners of meat and fiber goats to let the horns remain; however, many dairy goat owner choose to have them removed. Most owners do not mix horned and hornless goats together because of the chance of injury to the hornless goats.
Owners choose to have horns removed for a combination of the following reasons:
1. Horns get stuck in things, and can cause the goat to injure itself.
2. Goats with horns can hurt each other when they play butt each other.
3. Horns can hurt people and children, and are inconvenient to work around when milking.
4. Horns may damage fencing, barns, mangers, and so on.
5. Dairy goat owners typically prefer to buy hornless goats, so they’re worth more.
6. Horns can break, and a goat can bleed to death from a broken horn.
7. Dairy goats aren’t typically allowed in 4H or goat shows if they have horns.
Goat owners may choose to keep horns if they’re not interested in showing and aren’t worried about the safety aspects. Also, horns do contain many blood vessels and are said to help goats regulate their temperature, particularly in hot weather. And, by keeping horns, it avoids the process of disbudding to remove them.
The disbudding process most often used to remove horns isn’t difficult, but it is painful to the kid for the few seconds it takes to perform the operation. It’s typically done when the kid is from two to ten days old, depending on when the horn bud breaks through the kids skull. Buck kids usually need to be disbudded sooner that does, and the idea is to cauterize the area surrounding the horn bud so that blood can’t flow to the horns and cause them to grow.
The procedure is performed by confining the kid, and placing an extremely hot iron around the horn bud for several seconds. There are several specialty irons made specifically for this purpose. If properly disbudded, the horns on the kid will not continue to grow and the goat will appear to be hornless. Unfortunately, the procedure is often improperly done, and scurs (small horn growths) begin growing. As long as the scurs remain small, goats with scurs are still allowed in goat shows.
Besides horned and disbudded goats, there are also goats that are born polled, or naturally hornless. Since goat owners typically hate disbudding kids; polled goats are becoming increasingly popular, but it can be difficult to find polled goats with great genetics. This is because although there were once many polled goats in the US (some show scorecards even awarded more points for being polled), an article was published by the USDA in the mid-1940’s that linked polled goats with an increased chance for producing hermaphrodism. Hermaphrodism is an animal with both male and female reproductive organs that is sterile.
This was only one report and the statistical significance is questionable today; however, breeders quickly began culling or hiding any polled genetics. So, some animals that were naturally polled were not registered as being polled, and polled animals were disbudded to disguise the fact that they were naturally hornless.
Despite the negative stigma that was attached to polled goats, there have been a few breeders over the years that have been breeding polled goats successfully and report no increase in hermaphrodism. They maintain that it’s just as likely to produce hermaphrodism when breeding two horned goats as when breeding two polled goats. There is still great debate on the subject, so it’s a good idea to at least understand how it’s determined whether a goat is born polled or horned.
In goat DNA, there are two “slots” for horn genes and each goat gets one slot filled by its dam and one slot filled by its sire. The horned gene is recessive and the polled gene is dominant, so if a goat receives two horned genes it is homozygous horned (and appears horned), if it receives one of each it is heterozygous polled (the dominant polled gene “hides” the horned gene and it appears polled), and if it receives two polled genes it is homozygous polled (and appears polled).
Thinking about it another way (P=polled gene, H=horned gene), if the goat receives:
HH = Homozygous horned – produces horned offspring unless bred to polled mate (looks horned).
PH = Heterozygous polled – produces polled & horned offspring unless bred to homozygous polled mate (looks polled).
PP = Homozygous polled – produces polled offspring, regardless of mate (looks polled).
Some breeders believe they minimize the possibility of producing a sterile animal by never breeding a polled goat to a polled goat, whereas others don’t worry about the possibility and believe the rate of incidence is the same whether breeding polled to polled, polled to horned, or horned to horned.
If you are buying wethers or does intended only for pets and are not planning to breed them, then you simply need to decide whether you want the goats to have horns or not. If going with the hornless option, then it doesn’t matter whether the goats have been disbudded or are polled, they simply won’t have horns.
If however, you are buying goats that you later intend to breed, milk, or show, then the options have more implications for the future. First of all, a horned dairy goat typically cannot be shown, and it’s difficult and somewhat dangerous (think about getting hit with a horn in the eye) to work around a horned goat when milking. That often restricts new owners choices to hornless goats.
If you are buying goats that you later plan to breed and want hornless goats, then polled versus disbudded becomes a consideration. Getting a polled doe or buck should greatly minimize the amount of disbudding you or your veterinarian will need to perform over the years. But, they are still somewhat difficult to find from herds with great milk production, show, and linear appraisal credentials.