Since hornless female cows are common sights, it’s easy to believe that cattle are just like most breeds of deer and their antlers in that only the males have horns. On the contrary, the horns on cattle aren’t limited to the males (bulls) of the species. Unless the breed is what’s known as “polled” or dehorned while they’re calves, both bulls and cows naturally have horns.
To help explain, we answered a few frequently asked questions.
Why Do Cattle Have Horns?
Cattle are prey animals and haven’t always been domesticated. In the wild, their horns were their only defense. Both bulls and cows would use them to protect themselves, each other, and their calves.
The horns on your cattle are the reason that predators, like wolves, often only target sick, injured, or dying members of the herd. If you’ve ever seen two bulls fight, you’ll probably understand why predators wouldn’t dare risk getting up close and personal with their horns.
Why Don’t Dairy Cattle Have Horns?
So, why don’t people see cows with horns that often? The reason is that it’s safer, especially on smaller farms, for cattle not to have horns.
Most farm cattle, particularly dairy cows, don’t have horns for two reasons. They were either dehorned when they were calves, or they were bred specifically to not have horns at all.
Dehorning or Disbudding
Dehorning, or disbudding, is a process that calves go through that removes their horns while they’re still young. On smaller farms, removing your cattle’s horns can stop unnecessary injuries to weaker members of the herd that are being bullied by the others and can help you handle the breed easier.
It is, however, painful for the cow to go through this procedure, even when under anesthetic and being young enough that their horns aren’t fully developed. Due to this, it’s banned in the EU, Switzerland, and a handful of other countries through the 1911 Protection of Animals Act.
Both bulls and cows can be dehorned, although it’s usually the cows, and it’s recommended for the process to happen as early as possible. The calves are usually less than 2 months old. During this period, the horn buds aren’t yet attached to the skull.
Dehorning cattle before the horns start growing—once they attach to the skull—helps keep the process simpler and minimize bleeding.
“Polled” Cattle Breeds
Dehorning is an unpleasant task for any farmer, and if not done properly, can cause serious damage to the calf, along with infection. Instead of worrying about all the technicalities, farmers often turn to breeds without horns. Through careful breeding practices, farmers and breeders have started developing “polled” cattle.
“Polled” cattle are bred specifically to not have horns, saving the hassle of dehorning them. It’s a genetic trait that can be inherited, thus creating a breed of cattle that doesn’t have horns.
What’s the Difference Between Antlers and Horns?
Many animals have horns or antlers, but it’s not always clear what the difference is. The simplest answer is that antlers, like those on deer, are constantly growing. They’ll fall off and regrow for the next season. Horns, on the other hand, are permanent, and once cut off, they don’t grow back.
All cattle, male or female, naturally have horns. Cows might have smaller horns than bulls, but they still count. The only reason that you see cows without horns is due to dehorning or polled breeds.
The dehorning process involves removing the horn bud on calves less than 2 months old. For many farmers, though, this is a disliked method of handling the issue of horns and causes pain for the calf. Polled cattle are specifically bred to not have horns, and the trait is genetic, so it can be passed down through generations.
- Next on your reading list: Why Are Cattle Dehorned? Is It Painful for Them?
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