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Peace and Quiet in the Dairy

Prairie folk of the late nineteenth century were accustomed to reading grim reports of deadly gorings inflicted by horned cattle--a catalog of grief and outrage chronicled in my previous essay. In March of 1888 a correspondent of the Emmons County Record offered them an answer to their problem: dehorning.

The practice of dehorning, done with saws or clippers, faced public and legal opposition in Britain and in the eastern states. Its first public advocate in this country--named and credited by our Emmons County correspondent in 1888--was the Illinois dairyman H. H. Haaf. He was charged with cruelty to animals in 1886, but won acquittal.

Haaf made the practical argument for dehorning. “When a man asks me what dehorning means,” he declared, “I tell him it means peace and quiet in the dairy, it means success every time, it means fat and butter.”

Here in the West, and for that matter across the country, dehorning prevailed against charges of cruelty, despite the frequently bloody and occasionally fatal consequences of its implementation. There were at the time many and powerful advocates for the humane treatment of animals, but their empathy and energies focused on horses, which were a sympathetic and visible class of victims. Cattle, in fact, often gored horses, making the horned beasts hard to advocate for.

So our Emmons County proponent of dehorning dismissed the idea of cruelty, saying “there was only brief pain.” He cited well-known facts about violence and death dealt to humans and livestock by horned cattle. And he clinched his argument with practical considerations.

Dehorned cattle, he said, “are more like sheep.” They quietly feed en masse at bunks and peaceably drink from troughs. They could be confined and shipped without hooking one another. Happy cows, they gave more milk and wintered better in confinement.

Professor John Shepperd at North Dakota Agricultural College endorsed the practice, showing through experimentation that cows exhibited reduced milk production for only a couple of days following dehorning, and the reduction was slight.

A farmer-correspondent from South Dakota protested that he had tried dehorning, and it was a mistake. He said his dehorned cows gave less milk and butterfat. Worse, he observed that many of his heifers were failing to carry their calves to successful delivery, which he attributed to cattle crowding together too much, standing in the lot or lying in the shed, when they lacked horns to enforce healthy distance. Cruelty was not parcel to his argument.

It was for practical reasons, then, that stockmen sought to eliminate the need for dehorning by nipping the horns in the bud, burning the swelling growths off their calves’ heads. The burning was done by applying caustic potash--available from local dealers in pencil-stick form--to the horn buds. People wrote about this technique in local newspaper columns, saying it didn’t hurt the calf--although the chemical involved was hazardous had to have smarted severely.

The agricultural college learned of the use of potash in this way and issued instructions: nick a slight cut into the “soft nub that forms the bud,” they said; rub the potash stick on the button; and after the treatment, make sure the calf doesn’t stand in the rain, which might wash the poison into his eyes.

We often talk about how hard life was for our pioneers. I reckon it was even harder for the animals.

~Tom Isern

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