Cows with horns?

by Liz Beavis

I know there is a bit of confusion around cattle and horns.  I've heard a few people say that they thought only bulls had horns.  I suppose that makes sense... but its wrong!

eight acres - house cow with horns

Most cattle are born with horns

Both male and female cattle are often born with horns, only tiny stubs obviously, but they quickly grow into full horns as the animal matures.  You might not see many cattle with horns because they are usually removed at a young age.  There are two reasons for this, firstly the horns can grow back into the animal's skull, and cause problems.  Bella had horns like this and we had to remove them when she was an adult, causing her considerable distress.  

The other reason is that cattle with horns can injure other cattle when they are loaded onto trucks, so any cattle that are destined for feedlots and/or abattoirs are generally dehorned, as are dairy cows who have to stand next to each other to be milked.  They also have the potential to harm humans.

You might have noticed that our beautiful Molly cow does have horns.  We chose not to remove her horns because I think its a painful procedure for young cattle and not necessary if they are living on a small farm.  Yes Molly does toss her head around sometimes when she's frustrated and she could unintentionally hurt us (I like to think she wouldn't mean it), however she is very tame and we just have to manage her appropriately.  

I believe that Molly has lovely straight horns because we fed her well, with lots of minerals and her mother's milk until she was 14 months old.  We don't have all the details of Bella's early life, but I gather that she only had milk for 3-4 months and probably wasn't fed well.  Prior to mass production of milk, dairy cows always kept their horns and their correct conformation was one way to judge the health of the cow (we have a few old dairy books with images of beautiful horned dairy cows!).

Polled cattle are born without horns

Some cattle have been bred very carefully to have no horns.  There are called "polled" cattle.  The angus steers and cows that we have at the moment are all polled.  Generally their progeny should also be polled.  I think this is the best option, as you don't have to hurt the animal to remove horns and you don't have management issues.  However, cattle without horns are less able to defend themselves or their calves against wild dogs.  If you know you have a problem with dogs, it might be good to have a few cows with horns.

If you breed a polled animal with a horned animal, you may get offspring with horns, polled, or with "scurs" (not to be confused with scours!).  These are wobbly horns that are not attached to the skull.  They don't need to be removed for transport as they don't pose a danger to other animals, but they can easily break off too.

When we had the braford cattle I learnt that its very difficult to breed a polled brahman (bos indicus) crossed with a bos taurus (such as a braford, which is a brahman hereford cross) because the genes for horns are different in the two species, so its difficult to line up the recessive traits and breed a true polled animal.  Unfortunately brahman cross animals do well on our property, so it might be difficult to find the right polled animal for our place.

It has also been difficult to breed polled dairy cattle 

Dehorning cattle is a painful procedure

True horns are actually attached to the skull of the animal.  If you remove them when the animal is very young, they are not quite attached completely.  There are various "dehorning" tools, most of them involve scooping the horn out of the animal's head.  There is a lot of bleeding.  It looks painful and I don't want anything to do with it unless its absolutely necessary.  

We removed Bella's horns because they were growing into her head, but apart from that we haven't removed any horns and as a result we sometimes don't get as good prices at the sale yard when we send horned cattle.  They can actually devalue the entire truck load as they could have bruised the other cattle.

We have only ever had polled or dehorned bulls and I would prefer not to have a bull with horns.  There is just an extra unpredictability with bulls and I don't want to give them any extra power to hurt me!

So if you see cattle with horns, don't assume that its a bull!  But don't get into the paddock to find out either!  What do you think?  Do you dehorn?  Buy polled?  Or manage horns?

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Our mini-bull doesn't have horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Polled Angus steers - no horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Baby house cows - starting to grow horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Miss Molly cow - definitely has horns,
but her calf Chubby had a polled sire, and she doesn't have horns


  • Becky

    I like the horns on my cattle – I keep a small Dexter herd. We have coyotes in our area, and I feel their horns are useful to protect the babies, should coyotes get into the pasture. So far, my cattle have been gentle as pie, even the bull, so horns it is. :)

  • Liz

    Chris – yes it does depend, sometimes you want horns and sometimes you don’t :)

  • Liz

    Nanna Chel – you need to subscribe to my new blog feed:

    Or my newsletter:

  • Nanna Chel

    Hi Liz, I just saw this post on Chris’ blog and came to check. I haven’t been getting updates about your blog posts for some reason. I thought you had stopped blogging :-)

  • Chris

    It does depend on your circumstances. My grandfather was happy to let his cows have horns. But then he started having management issues with the steers, and mamas wanting to protect their babies. After having to repair a few injuries to his cattle, he decided to switch to de-horning.

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