Posted by: Eric | March 2, 2011

Necessary Evils

Farming has a lot of joy in it.  There’s something about working with animals, and with the land, that is inherently satisfying.  It touches something deep in our psyche.  There’s a growing number of therapy programs that work with troubled youth or those with developmental disabilities, and it seems to be working.

But not all of farming is so pleasant.  There are those things that are necessary for the health of your animals that are not much fun for anyone involved.  I can tell you that giving shots to critters is no more fun than getting a shot, yourself.  Last night, however, we were working on what is probably my least favorite goat-related activity: disbudding.

Horns are, frankly, just too dangerous for a farm operation.  Goats can injure their handlers, they will fight with each other (sometimes as play, sometimes to establish pecking order), and horned goats are very good at getting caught in fences.  I’ve seen or heard of horned animals getting stuck in a fence and breaking limbs, strangling themselves, or being attacked by a wild dog.  A goat that breaks a horn in the process of freeing itself is likely to bleed to death.  Full-grown horns are also easily sharp enough to pierce flesh.  The last thing you want is another animal (or your own family members) gored by an angry, nervous, or incautious goat.  So we disbud: we remove the horns not long after birth.

This process, put mildly, sucks.  You take a hot iron, specially shaped to goat horn buds, and burn off the tissue, so that horns cannot grow in.  It sounds cruel, and believe me, it’s no picnic, but almost everyone agrees that a few minutes of pain and a couple days of tenderness are better than slowly bleeding to death some day down the road.  I think I hate pinning the goats down and singeing them almost as much as they hate being singed.  And the burnt fur smell just clings in your nose.  It’s awful.  Worse, even if it were affordable to anesthetize the goats for the process, goats are notoriously difficult to put to sleep.  Bad things tend to happen to ruminants, and goats in particular, when they are put under.  So, we just do it.  You grab the kid, test the iron for heat against a board, and burn off the bud.

Yesterday was my first time being in charge of the iron and doing the actual disbudding (I just held the goats, in the past).  I can’t say it was fun.  But I was pretty good at it.  I think my years as school teacher have helped me develop a callous, cynical pragmatism that allows me to do some harm — if it’s better for the critter in the long run — without feeling too bad about it.

But they still got treats for being good little goats.

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