Disbudding

Disbudding is the process of permanent horn removal.  It is done through the use of a disbudding iron heated to very high temperatures to burn away the tissue that will create horn growth.  When I had my first goats disbudded something like 15 years ago, the long time goat farmer I took them to mentioned having used the Rhinehart x30 for 20 years and regretting replacing it with a Rhinehart x50 when it stopped working.  Based on that experience, I purchased a Rhinehart x30 and have used it for probably a decade until this year, 2023, when I decided to no longer disbud.  It is the specific model I would recommend if I were to make a recommendation.

Use the Standard Tip

For both standard and miniature (Nigerian or Pygmy) goats, the 1/2″ tip is recommended.  Despite their smaller size, the horn base of a miniature goat is large and the smaller sized tips aren’t adequate.

Age to Disbud

You can experiment to find a way that works best for you.  Some folks prefer to disbud within 1-5 days, but I found I had better results within 7-10 days, primarily because there was enough horn tissue growing to hold the iron steady when it was applied.  I have gone out as long as three weeks but this will almost certainly result in the growth of scurs in bucks.  A scur is a horn-like growth that is not solid and often grows in random directions, including sometimes back into the skull.  Scurs are unsightly and should be avoided if possible, so burning earlier is better.

Shave First

It’s easier to disbud if the hair around the horn buds has been removed.  For years, we did this with the use of a $15 cordless bikini trimmer, a great option if you’re on a budget.  Once I purchased a set of real goat clippers, I switched to using those and wish I’d done it years earlier.  Shave a good portion around each horn bud so you can easily see and don’t inadvertently burn hair.

Disbudding Box or Not?

I never liked the idea of a disbudding box because I can’t feel the animal then.  Instead, for a one-person disbudding job, I lay a thick towel on the ground, nestle the kid on the towel and cover the kid with another towel that is wide enough for me to rest my knees on both sides, effectively cocooning the kid and preventing movement while still being more comfortable and personal than a plywood box.  I then take my secondary hand and hold the head against my leg while I use the iron in my dominant hand.

If I have a steady person to help (my husband and I teamed up most of the time), that person will hold against their chest, using one hand to keep back legs clear and another to hold the head, turning the goat to the other side once the first is completed.

The Process

I remember reading suggestions to hold the iron down for 10-15 seconds per side and I want to start with: don’t ever do that.  I am certain I would have gone through the skull if I ever held the iron down that long.  Instead, I do quick 1-2 second bursts where I rotate pressure in a circle around the area without lifting the iron, remove the iron and look for the copper ring, and repeat in short bursts until the entire perimeter of the horn bud is surrounded by a copper colored ring and I can pop the horn cap off (don’t eliminate this step, super important). Once the ring is achieved, I turn the iron on its side and burn the area where the horn cap was.

Bucks and Avoiding Scurs

Bucks want to grow big, beautiful horns and disbudding needs to be done differently to ensure they don’t keep persisting in the form of scurs.  After the initial single ring is done, a half circle burn right in front of the first needs to be done.  By front, I mean closer toward his nose because that’s where scurs will begin to develop if not.

This photo demonstrates the double burn done on bucks.  You can see the complete ring and removed horn cap on both kids, and an additional half circle burn in front of that, also on both kids.  (They were really enjoying the warm sunshine while they napped.)

Let me break it down in easy to read steps:

  1. Apply the iron in 1-2 second bursts
  2. Rotate the pressure on the iron without lifting the iron so you apply pressure around the whole circle
  3. Pop the horn cap off
  4. Burn any black areas that have not achieved a solid copper color
  5. Turn iron on side, burn the area revealed by removing the horn cap
  6. For bucks, burn an additional half circle just in front of the first

Reintroducing Kids to Mom

If you are dam raising, this is a very important step that must be done carefully, especially for new moms.  When you return the kid to its mom, return it with its rear facing her nose so she can sniff and identify that it is her kid.  The scent of the burn will be very off putting to her and it is not uncommon, especially in inexperienced moms, for a doe to reject a kid because of the disbudding.  Returning rear first works almost 100% of the time.  In the rare instance it does not, squirt her milk on the kid’s head and keep them confined for the rest of the day in a smaller space with food and water.

Post Disbudding Treatment and What to Look For

It is critically important that you do not do anything to introduce the anaerobic environment that tetanus thrives in.  This means no putting salves, creams or other barriers on the disbudding site after the procedure.  I don’t routinely give anything after disbudding.  That includes antitoxins, topical applications or any other internal or external anything.  I simply disbud, put them back with mom and let them be.  If I felt as though something was warranted, the only topical I would apply is colloidal silver spritzed on the site.

Bleeding

Occasionally, a bleeder will occur at the disbudding site.  This can indicate an incomplete burn.  If it happens immediately after, I will reburn with the still-hot iron.  This is the most effective and if you have a spot that will not stop bleeding some time after disbudding, you can consider cauterizing it with the iron.  Effective herbal methods to stop bleeding include applying cayenne or yarrow powder directly to the bleeding area.  Both are very excellent blood stop agents that also promote wound healing and should be in every herbal goat owner’s medicine cabinet.

Oozing/Infection

In hundreds of disbudding jobs, I don’t think I have ever encountered infection.  Done properly, the area is sterilized and cauterized with little chance for error.  If a disbudding site were to become infected, I would first want to be sure the horn cap had been popped off during disbudding.  If so, I would generously spritz the affected area several times per day with colloidal silver.  If not, it may be worth revisiting the disbudding and removing the cap to ensure a clean heal.  You will probably know if this needs to happen based on symptoms.

In a case where colloidal silver is not yielding results, a systemic approach may be needed.  I would begin a regimen of oregano essential oil internally using acute dosing guidelines.

Scabs Falling Off

Several weeks after disbudding, the scabs will begin to fall off.  At any time after disbudding and while it is healing, it is not uncommon to see occasional bleeding where the kid has scratched the itching, healing site.  As scabs begin to fall off, this bleeding may become more steady.  This is normal and excessive bleeding can be staunched using the blood stop options listed above.  Once the scabs have fully fallen off, healing is usually pretty well complete, though a minor amount of scabbing may remain.  At this point, the disbudding is finished and nothing more needs to be done.

Scurs

Scurs can occur and the general consensus is to re-burn if they’re noticed in the first few months.  I have never had the heart to do that, but once when I disbudded for someone else, she asked me to re-burn.  It wasn’t a process I ever want to repeat, but it can be done in the same way as a regular burn, just paying attention only to the area where new growth appears and again ensuring the copper color as a sign of completion.

What About Tetanus?

In the hundreds of kids I disbudded, not one has gone on to develop tetanus.  It simply isn’t a suitable environment–most of the time–for tetanus to thrive.  The only two cases I know of in my own personal sphere are from someone who did not remove the horn cap after disbudding.  Both of the kids done that day developed tetanus and died.  I do not administer any vaccinations or antitoxins to my goats before or ever.

Ethical Considerations

I have disbudded for over a decade.  Because you’re here, you are interested in my perspective on goat raising and while I don’t intend to try to evangelize anyone to my path, I think it’s important to have a conversation about the ethics of disbudding.

For the past couple of years, it’s been getting harder and harder for me to intentionally inflict suffering on another living being.  In 2023, amidst a lot of life changes relating to my personal spirituality and philosophies, I decided that I no longer can disbud goats so I no longer am.

In addition to causing pain, I realized how much trauma I am causing in order to have more convenience in my herd.  And then there’s this study:

…the objective of this pilot study was to evaluate the effect of iron application time on brain injury of goat kids…In conclusion, all application times used in this study resulted in some level of brain injury; however, using 15 s or more resulted in more severe and consistent brain injury. These results indicate that extended iron application time may increase the risk of brain injury in cautery disbudded kids. (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2020.568750/full)

I’d encourage you to read it all.  While it’s a very small study, it has important implications and can be considered as part of a larger discussion on whether or not we, as holistic producers, ought to be disbudding our kids.

Overall, I feel that the more we intervene with what our human minds believe is better than nature, the more we risk damaging health.  If, however, disbudding is the right choice for your herd, I hope this walkthrough has helped give you some idea of what to expect and look for.

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