Yes, baby animals are adorable. And yes, there are few things sweeter than a bottle fed baby goat or a three week old baby bunny hopping out of a nest. But livestock farming is not all baby faces and soft fur. Often it is pests in the barn attempting to spoil feed, shoveling out layers of excrement, sadness when there is death, vaccinations, bumps-bruises, diarrhea, clipping hooves and checking for worms. It's smells, it's messy, and most livestock don't appreciate it when you want to give them a shot or some other routine care.
Today was one of those less-cute days. Goats grow horns. Well, goats have the potential to grow horns. And when it comes to modifying animals- we usually err on the side of less intervention. For example, if an animal gets sick, we start with electrolytes and basic first aid (rest, separating them out, ensuring cleanliness, lots of fresh water) before even considering antibiotics. But a goat with horns is a danger to itself, pen mates and us as farmers. Goat horns grow straight out and can easily gore or get caught in fencing. Goats are affectionate and playful and can easily injure each other or their farmers just in their day-to-day behavior. We believe that we have to accommodate our livestock to give them a healthy life- we give up sleeping in, we go out of our way to get the best feed, we provide ample space and clean living spaces. But we also are raising them for a purpose, so they live a modified life- and our goats can't have horns. So how does one take care of horns on a sweet baby goat?
Through a process called disbudding. Essentially, you use a very, very hot iron to halt the growth of horn buds when the goats are just a few days old. You check every day for the little buds to appear, and then once you feel them (like the size of a bug bite) it's time to take care of them. It takes a skilled hand and some special equipment, both of those brought to us by our good friends who have their own dairy goats. It all took less than hour, and we'll spare you the finer points. It's tough to inflict any kind of temporary pain on a puppy-like goat. But being a responsible livestock farmer is providing appropriate care. And honestly, just a few hours after we were done the babies are back to normal, lest the potentially harmful horns.
I love working with animals, they bring a real richness to our work here. Even on days where an escaped turkey catches me the wrong way with a wing and gives me a black eye or I'm scraping rabbit cages, I really enjoy the livestock. Today wasn't an exception. I know we've done the right thing for Noel and Lucia, and it that it's just one step in raising healthy dairy goats. But I also will greatly enjoy heading down to the barn to get them a warm bottle while the snow falls with the unpleasantness behind us.