Rural veterinary practice
Overlaying of piglets
Delivery of a goat
Foot and Mouth Disease
Bovine Virus Diarrhoea
Herd health management
6. Dehorning livestock (loose housing barn)
1984: cow with horns
Well into the seventies of the previous century a Dutch farmhouse had two separate parts: the farmer and his family lived in the front house while the cows were kept in the stanchion barn. However, the herds were considerably expanded and new and larger barns were needed. This meant the construction of loose housing barns that are now common across the countryside. Cows are no longer securely tied but can walk around freely. A railing separates them from the feed alley. In order to eat, they must stick their head through that railing. Large horns are therefore a problem. Cows would become stuck and it required an angle grinder to free them. Which is why in the seventies and eighties, it was common to saw off the horns of every cow in the herd. Since then, the horn buds are removed shortly after a calf is born, making the dehorning of mature cows a thing of the past.
Cow horns are rock hard and partially numb. They can be shortened using a saw without causing pain. But they do continue to grow in the course of a cow’s life, and so shortening horns is only a temporary solution. Sawing off the horns at the base, near the head, is a more efficient approach. But the horns are especially sensitive near the head and moreover, they contain major blood vessels. Sawing the horns off near the base therefore requires an anaesthetic. To prevent stress, the cows are given an injection beforehand that makes them drowsy, followed by the local anaesthetic. But the cows do not let you stick them in the head with a syringe just like that. And if one of the cows starts to bellow, then the sparks will fly: all of the cows in the barn are then ‘on edge’ as soon as you get near them with your syringe. You really need to be careful, as the horns are their weapons with which they defend themselves. But once all of the cows are drowsy and the local anaesthetic does what it is supposed to do, all of the horns can be sawed off at the base without any problems using a wire saw. The spurt of blood that generally occurs is stopped by placing an elastic tightly around the remaining stumps. Back then, around forty dairy cows made up a herd. And so dehorning involved sawing through eighty rock hard daggers. That was a half day of hard work.
Upon making an appointment to dehorn his cows, the farmer asks whether I object to cutting the horns off instead of sawing them off. That is, using tongs that operate on the oil pressure of his tractor. The method is supposedly less wearying and quicker. It so happens that I once saw a contract worker use tongs of that kind, called stump cutters, to cut tree trunks. They require a lot of horsepower from the tractor. But tractors are strong machines: varying from around sixty to one hundred and twenty hp. As long as the anaesthetic does its work, it really shouldn’t matter how the horns are removed. And they are used to being around a tractor: they are fed by tractor twice a day. We decide to give it a try.
On the day the procedure is to take place, all of the cows are lined up with their heads between the railing. They are given an injection with a sedative; not too much as they need to keep standing during the procedure. They are then given a local anaesthetic. I check that they are sufficiently numb and administer a bit more anaesthetic if necessary. We then start the tractor and the large shears are manoeuvred into the right position above the head of the first cow. This takes a bit of practice as the size of the shears is out of proportion for the task in hand. But once they are in the right spot, it is simply a matter of stepping on the gas and plop! The horn flies off with a bang. It is less than a piece of cake. The two of us work our way through the entire herd in less than two hours. We are not at all tired. And the cows did not suffer at all: the milk production that evening is normal and, later on, the horn stumps are not infected.
2015: dehorned cows
I take a waste bag full of cut off horns home with me. My wife asked me to because she considers them good fertilizer for certain plants in the garden. In the days to come, the horns are buried in the soil at various spots throughout the garden. Much later, cable television is introduced in our village. To that end, a trench is dug from the street to the house. When I arrive home for lunch, I am approached by the foreman of the cable workers. While digging in the garden, his men have come across the remains of dead cows and they fear they may contract a fever or some other serious infection. Which is why they stopped digging. Dead cows in our garden? But when I learn that they have only found cow horns, it begins to dawn on me. They thought I had buried dead animals in my back yard following an unsuccessful procedure. And who knows which diseases the animals could have been suffering from? But these horns are from completely healthy animals. We were then hooked up to the television cable without anything else going wrong. And everything in the garden flourished.
© Leo Rogier Verberne