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Disbudding, a procedure for preventing the growth of horns, is one of the hardest things we have to do with (to) our goats but we highly recommend it unless there is a very, VERY good reason NOT to do it.  In our case, we are raising hand-reared, friendly dairy goats who we enjoy as much for their interactions with us as for their productivity.  That means we're around them a lot and the risk of an accidental poke with a horn is just too great to ignore. 

For disbudding we use a specially-made electric hot iron tool which is applied to the horn "buds" when they are only a few days old.  We are still learning about the best and most effective, and humane way to do the procedure but have found that waiting until the kid is too old is much more likely to produce "scurs", which are unwanted and possibly dangerous (to the goat) partial horns.  It's time to disbud when the horn buds are able to be felt easily. With Nubians, this can be when the kid is one week to three weeks old.  Swiss breeds of goats can be done earlier. 

I say in the sub-title for this page that it is a "difficult" procedure.  Well it is, but not from a skill or technical standpoint.  It is, with the proper equipment, a straight forward and fairly simple task.  The difficulties are more in our having to cope, personally, with taking the poor few-days-old critters and having to put them through it.  THEY seem to have a much easier time of it then we often do.

We also usually do our tattooing of the kids at the same time as disbudding so here is a picture series of our disbudding/tattooing process.

Here David describes our technique.

Step 1

About 15 minutes before starting, we plug in the disbudding iron to make sure it has a chance to fully heat. Being on solar power, we run the generator for disbudding as we find it gives better power to the iron. In preparation for the tattooing, we clean the kid's ears well with a cotton ball and rubbing alcohol. It's amazing how dirty a 10 day old ear can be! Here, our "volunteer", Brass is lowered into the disbudding box. His head is placed in the contoured support, we make sure his ears are out of the way and we secure the lid.

Step 2

Secure in the disbudding box, Kathryn holds Brass's ears back and out of the way as I apply the extremely hot iron tip to the first horn bud.  Rotating the tip around and back I continue with firm pressure to ensure good contact for about 7 seconds.  There's a lot of smelly smoke from the hair singeing.  We then check the burn.  Usually it still needs about 4 more seconds of burning to make a complete white ring.

Step 3

We repeat the process on the other horn bud.

Step 4

Kathryn snips off the horn bud with her hoof-trimming shears and we examine the job closely to make sure we have burned fully around the whole perimeter of the bud and have gone deep enough overall.  The burned ring should be a very deep copper color or white.  A white ring means the burn has reached the skull.  We burn to a white ring when doing bucklings since they tend to grow scurs more easily.

Step 5

 I reapply the iron where and as necessary.  We really want to do a good job right now and do not want to risk having to bring little Brass back in a few weeks to re-do the job if we were not thorough enough.  I will also take the side of the iron and burn a bit on the center of each bud.

Step 6

As soon as we are satisfied we have done a good job, Kathryn immediately sprays each bud with our dairy aerosol teat disinfectant (Fight Bac).  The spray is very cold coming out of the can and helps cool the site and the disinfectant properties should help stave off infections.

Step 7

We tattoo all of our registered goats in their ears.  One ear gets our herd identifier and the other gets a code with the kid's birth year and birth order on the Ranch.  We use green tattoo ink and a special set of tattoo pliers into which the individual alpha-numeric tattoo are arranged.

Step 8

Despite my lengthy explanation, the whole process of disbudding and tattooing takes less than a minute.  Here, moments after the procedure, Brass and his friends are enthusiastically slurping up lunch, none the worse for wear. He will soon run off and be bashing heads with his buddies while we try not to cringe at the sight.

Disbudding At BMR

A more in depth look by Kathryn

We use a Rhinehart 30 iron and disbud Nubians so the method below might be somewhat different with different irons, different breeds, and different techniques. We burn to the white of the skull. Yes, I know that the “copper ring” is all that is needed, but no one really knows where that point is. What seems brown enough to one person, isn’t what someone else thinks is brown enough – there is just too much guess work. To avoid this dilemma and to insure a good job we burn until the circle of skin inside the ring of the burn easily peels away.

We put the kid in a disbudding box and I hold the kid’s ears out of the way. David holds the kid’s head steady and applies the iron with moderate pressure over the horn bud, rotating the iron around the bud, for 7 to 8 seconds. That’s REAL seconds – like One MISSISSIPPI, Two MISSISSIPPI, etc. Not 12345678. Put a clock with a second hand out with you if you have to. Just do the burn without hesitation – that first 8 second burn will kill the nerves which are what transmit pain sensations, so don’t keep lifting the iron to check progress until after that. Otherwise the kid suffers much more than necessary.

After 8 seconds remove the iron and check the burn. This is where having two people works really well. It’s a nasty job and the person doing the burning really wants to be done! Having a second opinion is really helpful. So I look at the first side while David repeats the 8 second burn to the other bud. Once he’s done with the second side burn I tell him where to burn more on the first. I may say, “just do one second on the back”, or “do all the way around but mostly on the inside”, but usually I simply say, “burn it again”. They are hardly ever done in that first 8 seconds, in fact it’s usually barely even a brown ring yet. So he will burn for an additional 4 seconds. Then I’ll reassess. At this point there is usually some of the skull showing from around the burn ring. Again, I tell David what part needs a bit more burning. Once the white of the skull is showing around the whole burn, I flip the circle of skin off. David reburns each bud for one second to be sure the blood vessels are cauterized, then uses the side of the iron to burn across the bud for a second or two. This also cauterizes the blood vessels. I spray the wounds with Fight Bac to help chill the area, then I tattoo the kid’s ears. The total disbudding time is around 40 seconds with an additional 30 seconds for the tattooing. The kid is in the disbudding box for less than 2 minutes, usually a lot less.

Let’s face it, disbudding is not fun for the people or the kids – so do it right the first time to avoid having to redo it later or ending up with goats having dangerous scurs. The difference between success and having to do it again is just a couple of seconds. If you are nervous about burning too long and going past the point of copper, just remember that the kids do fine even if you go to the skull. We do around 80 kids a year and have never had a health problem with going to the white. Do make sure your iron is HOT so that you keep the total burn time to a minimum, but be sure to burn well enough to kill the horn growth ring. I hope this helps.