The first or second thing most farm visitors notice about our older Kerry cows are their horns.
Horns were what I initially noticed about Kerry cattle the first time I saw them too. From a farmer’s point of view horns in livestock can be a source of trouble. Horned cattle are more dangerous to handle and are subject to accidents.
When we bought our first Kerry cows a few years ago they already had large horns. For the most part our cows are good girls and don’t misbehave too badly or get into trouble with their horns. However, we made the decision early on in our Kerry breeding program to de-horn all younger heifers and steers that were born on this farm. It makes life easier for both humans and cattle.
The presence of horns in cattle is the result of genetics. Cattle that lack certain genes are naturally hornless and are known as “polled”. Some breeds of cattle like the Angus and Galloway are always polled (hornless).
The gene for polling is a dominant gene in cattle.
Here in western Pennsylvania, old-timers use to refer to a naturally polled cow as a “Muley Cow”. I always wondered why they were called that and then I learned about the naturally polled Moiled Cattle that once roamed Northern Ireland. Moiled and Muley sound a lot alike and the word may have survived from the first Scots Irish settlers in this area.
Before we bought our first Kerry cows the previous owner had allowed a commercial cross bred Simmental/Angus bull to breed two of them. The resulting offspring were born naturally polled.
Horns once served cattle as a defense mechanism and will discourage casual predators. Horns can also help cattle that spend a lot of time in semi-wild places. Their horns can be used to knock over young trees and brush for food.
I do find it curious that a dominant genetic factor which would make cattle less able to defend themselves in the wild (and make bulls less able to beat rivals to build a harem) would be dominant.
In situations where cattle are managed inside buildings and yards horns can be bad news. Horns can cause puncture wounds on other cows and to humans; and horns can catch on pipelines, gates and feeders. And a broken horn on an adult animal can be a real bloody mess.
But horns do have useful commercial purposes. Before plastics, horns were used for buttons, cups, powder horns and other useful items. Once removed from a slaughtered cow horn material can even be heated and shaped. Horns are especially useful in working oxen as the horns keep them from backing out of a yoke.
Regardless of the gene expression, horns in cattle remain both a source of expense and controversy.
In the dairy cattle world all mainstream dairy breeds still have horn genetics.
Horns cost the dairyman time and trouble to remove. With cattle de-horning should be done as early as possible in a young bull or heifer’s life to avoid too much unnecessary pain and the possibly of complications. But de-horning also must be done with regard to weather conditions. Because de-horning done improperly can result in sinus infections and fly strike that can harm the newly de-horned animal.
Polled dairy genetics are now available but most dairymen have not used them. Some farmers are concerned that breeding for a single characteristic such as polling could result in some other valuable genetic trait being lost.