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De-Horning Dairy

There are plenty of reasons to want to eliminate horns in your dairy herd—they mean bruised animals, injured laborers, and a full-time medical professional on staff. Only recently, however, has attention come to the de-horning process. Even though almost all adult dairy cows have no horns, about 85% are born with them. That means a questionable and systematized surgery is part and parcel with most commercial cheese you are eating.

Who wants this to change? PETA for one—represented in this video by an Affleck brother (I wont say which one, but prepare to be disappointed). Dairy farmers might be slightly more reluctant, especially since the procedure doesn’t have to be quite so gruesome as “guillotine dehorners,” which sounds like something you would find in Marie Antoinette’s barn (let them eat cheese!). Disbudding procedures aim to remove horns while they are still “buds” in very young calves. This is perhaps less cruel than removing developing horns, but it still can be very painful, especially given the fact that most farmers won’t use anesthesia.

A new solution to this dilemma has emerged that has the potential to make all sides happy. Polled cattle are born without horns at all, and more and more groups are advocating to incorporate this genetic boon into their herds. This strategy is the basis of all animal domestication—you see a trait you like in an individual, then you breed it until it becomes a trait of the group. Fortunately, the gene for polled animals is dominant, making it easy to take root. The benefits of polled cows are clear: no more worrying about the ethical and fiscal issues in removal. Likewise, NPR reports that the following major companies have incorporated polled bulls into their supply chain: Kroger, Starbucks, Sodexo, Dannon, Aramark, Nestlé, General Mills, Chipotle, Dunkin’ Brands, and Wal-Mart. Of course, incorporation could mean just one polled animal, so I would take these proclamations with a grain of salt.

Why hasn’t this become the norm? Well for one, dairy farmers are still more likely to select for dairy production and other qualities amongst animals before selecting for the polled gene. It also takes time to properly integrate a trait while avoiding things like inbreeding. Nonetheless, awareness and desirability of polled animals is growing. In the words of Fair Oaks Farms president Mike McCloskey, “As soon as bulls start catching up, you’ll see dairy producers across the country using polled breeding, because we all would like to eliminate the process of dehorning.” That could mean a new norm for dairy cows in the near future.

Robbie Herbst

Robbie Herbst is a summer editorial intern and an undergrad at Dartmouth College, where he enjoys access to the unimaginably quaint cheese-makers of the upper valley. When he isn’t writing or playing violin, he likes to take bricks of Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar on long hikes through the White Mountains.