Primitive cattle needed horns to fight off predators and to sort out social ranking within the herd. Bulls needed them in their death fights for the 'king' bull status to do all the mating in the herd. But in modern cattle farming these duties are redundant so there is no reason to persist in farming cattle with horns. Horns cost the nation large amounts of money each year in a number of ways. Here are some examples:
When cattle are penned closely together in yards or during transport, they will head bunt! each other to sort out a social rank, and this will result in bruises. This happens much more when strangers are mixed. Bruising is not apparent until the beast is slaughtered and the hide removed. The damage results in down-grading of the carcass and lower payment to the owner.
Cattle hides are a valuable export and horn rakes leave permanent deep scars on the skin that cannot be removed during tanning and processing. These marks lower the grade of the hide and the financial return from it.
The cost to the nation from injuries caused by horns is considerable. Horns injure (either directly or indirectly) stockmen at saleyards, truck operators and meat workers. Direct injuries happen by the person being gored by a beast, and indirect ones by horned cattle lifting off gates which then fall on operators. A stockman ended up a paraplegic at Frankton sale yards from such an accident in 2003.
Owners of small farms are at much greater risk of injury from horned stock as they generally don't have proper cattle handling facilities including a solid crush and a good strong head bail.
The way horns grow is generally straight out from the animal's head or curved around in an arc. The latter horns often keep on growing and grow into the beast's eye or head.
Ingrown horns are painful. If you allow horns to become ingrown, or transport an animal with an ingrown horn, you can be fined. Similarly, you can be fined if you transport an animal with an injured horn – these are painful and the injury can worsen during transport. The only time you can transport an animal with an injured or ingrown horn is a short distance, for treatment. Consult your veterinarian if you are unsure if your animal is fit for transport.
Transporting animals with horns or antlers increases the risk of injury and should be avoided where possible. If you select or transport an animal with horns or antlers, and it is transported in a manner that causes injury to itself or others, you can be fined. If you have animals with horns, make sure you communicate with your stock agent and transporter, so they can plan appropriately.
Damage to meat plants
In modern meat plants animals are electronically stunned before being bled. Horned cattle damage the electrical wiring in the killing box hence slowing up the killing chain and adding greatly to costs of processing. As a result meat buyers are keener to buy polled stock for the company.
Horns as breed features
One of the biggest problems getting people to accept the need to get rid of horns is that in certain breeds with very large horns, they are an important breed feature. Examples are the Highland, Horned Hereford, Shorthorn and Texas Longhorn breeds. These breeders may have to face the fact in future that stock may not be accepted at meat plants unless horns are removed.
But it's not just very long horns that can cause problems. Terrible damage can be done by small horns and especially horns that have had the sharp ends or tips cut off - thinking that this is 'de-horning'. It is not! It's not just the size of the horn but the power the beast can put behind it from its strong neck muscles that does the damage.
The Holstein-Friesian breed (a horned breed) is of special significance as it's not only the main dairy breed but also provides most of New Zealand export beef in the form of bulls and cull cows for the USA hamburger market. Consequently there is a great need to poll the Holstein-Friesian and there are already polled strains in New Zealand that could be used.
What should farmers do?
To avoid the risk of injury and in the process help the meat industry lower costs, here are some suggestions:
- Don't ever buy horned cattle. There is plenty of breed choice without having to buy cattle with these useless dangerous appendages.
- If your stock agent buys horned cattle for you against your instructions send them back and change agents and/or companies.
- If you buy dairy weaner calves, check carefully to see if they have been dehorned and how good a job was done on them. If the job was botched, the horns will grow into nasty small horns again that can still do damage and should be removed.
- If you rear dairy weaners, it is preferable to prevent the horns from developing in the first place through a practice called disbudding. Disbudding should be done using a local anaesthetic before the animal is 6 weeks old. Disbudding without local anaesthetic is prohibited from 1 October 2019 Check with your veterinarian for this service.
- If you have horned cattle on your farm now - be aware that from 1 October 2019, it will be prohibited to dehorn cattle without the use of local anaesthetic. Consider ways to minimise the pain and distress and other negative health consequences (such as infection) that can be caused through using this procedure. Consult your veterinarian about dehorning. Don't let a kind neighbour cut them off with a saw or guillotine secateurs. You will remember the cost of this and all the blood and trauma when you buy your next lot of cattle!
- When choosing a bull to mate your cows, use a naturally polled breed. If you have a horned breed of cow the offspring should be all polled with the odd exception.
- If you keep pedigree purebred stock, start putting pressure on your breed association to get into the 21st Century and introduce a genetic polling programme.