Disbudding Kids by Irene Ramsay

The age to disbud kids varies from breed to breed. An approximate guide is:

Toggenburg 1-7 days
Saanen & Boers 2-10 days
Alpine 4-18 days
Nubian, Angora, feral 5-20 days

Toggenburg 2-10 days
Saanen & Boers 4-21 days
Alpine 6-21
Nubian, Angora, feral 7-25 days

Toggenburgs have a much broader horn base than the other breeds, which is why their hornbuds ripen earlier. Some bloodlines in all breeds have early maturing hornbuds, and some have slow maturing hornbuds, hence the wide timescales I have given. I have both fast and slow maturing hornbuds in my herd, and sometimes when I have crossed the two lines, I have had one twin needing early disbudding, while the other has been left another week.

It is important not to disbud too soon. If you do, you will find the hornbuds difficult to remove, and there will be a lot of scur regrowth – more than if you do the disbudding a few days later than the optimum for that particular kid.

A hornbud which still looks no more than a tiny pinhead pimple on the skin is too immature to do successfully. Wait until you can feel a raised area forming under the pimple, which will also broaden. Kids which are born overdue may need disbudding earlier than the guide says. Kids which are born prematurely should be left until their official birth date or longer, if possible, as prem kids often have noticeable hornbuds because their skulls haven’t grown into them. The worst case of regrowth I ever had was doing a prem kid’s horns a week before he should have been born.

It is possible to disbud horns which have emerged through the skin to a height of about 2 cm but it can mean some messy regrowth in the wider hornbase breeds (Togg, Saanen), and is a longer job for the kid to suffer; not to mention the bruises you’ll get because the kid is bigger and kicks harder.

Disbudding irons may heat off car batteries, gas bottles, electricity, a blowlamp or an open fire. The old-style open-fire types are very heavy and the working head is too small in diameter for kid buds – newborn calves’ hornbuds are smaller.

The irons I use are adapted soldering irons. The 50 watt iron has a head 19 mm in diameter, which experiment showed was the maximum size for that wattage. It does most doe kids. The 90 watt iron has a 22 mm diameter head and is used for buck kids, and doe kids with wide or overripe hornbuds.

Any wattage lower than 50 does not seal the wound sufficiently as it isn’t hot enough.

Some breeders like to use up to 200 watt heat, but it is necessary to work very fast because the extra heat can cause brain damage, and the faster you work the less likely you are to do a thorough job, unfortunately. Also, a 200 watt iron is much too heavy for most women to use with dexterity. Like footrot shears, disbudding irons need to be matched to their users.

My irons are both concave, so that they burn round the edge of the hornbud. This type has the advantage that you can feel when you have burnt through the skin to the skull, and can flick the hornbud out. I have used a flat-head iron but found it slower, and hard to judge when I had reached the skull. As the hornbud is not flicked out with this type of iron, if you don’t go deep enough, regrowth is considerable. I don’t recommend it for novices, although you may find you prefer it after doing a few dozen kids with a concave iron to get your hand in.

An electric iron takes 20 minutes to half-an-hour to reach full heat, depending on its diameter, and you won’t get a good result if you try to use it too soon. If you are using it outside, a cold wind can stop it from reaching full heat, too.

I now plug my irons in through an anti-surge plug, because they were affected by power fluctuations in this area. Whatever form of heating your iron uses, you can test it on a piece of wood – if it leaves a dark burn mark, it is hot enough.

You will also need:

  • a sharp penknife
  • a small bottle of methylated spirits (methyl alcohol)
  • a pair of sharp short-bladed scissors for cutting the hair off the hornbuds
  • a water-base felt tip pen – I prefer a green one as this shows up on all skin colours
  • and a powder dressing for the wounds

I use Aureomycin Pink Eye Powder as I’ve found the Terramycin itches and the kids scratch the wounds with their hooves. Charcoal powder from the pharmacist is also good. It is wise to have Negasunt on hand for the rare kid which bleeds and won’t stop, as it is a good clotting agent as well as a wound dressing, but care must be taken not to get it in the kid’s eyes. I haven’t used Negasunt more than a dozen times, and I’ve done 100’s of kids by now. [Negasunt now requires a vet prescription. You’ll get the same result with baking soda, cayenne pepper, or flour, just don’t get them in the kid’s eyes.]

You will also need something to lay the hot iron on when you aren’t using it – a thick piece of wood or a coal shovel are popular. It helps always to lay your tools out in the same order, so that you can work without hesitation – the less stress on the kid, the better. I also have an old sack to kneel on; this is easier on my knees and more comfortable for the kid, as I tuck the kid between my legs and sit on my heels to hold it in place ( the sack also soaks up the occasional little accident, buck kids are worse).

You may prefer to have someone else hold the kid, or use Val McMillan’s tattooing box. I’m short-sighted enough to be a danger to the head and hands of another holder – at least my left hand knows what my right hand is doing and it has to be a very wriggly kid for me to burn myself by mistake.

Always pick a place with good light, preferably at an angle across the kid’s head towards you, so that you don’t have awkward shadows.

Now, the tools are laid out ready, the kid is restrained by whatever method you’ve chosen, you are ready for stage one:

  1. Open the penknife, dunk the blade in the meths and lay it aside to dry.
  2. Put the top back on the meths bottle, you don’t want to start a fire by mistake.
  3. Next trim off all the hair round the hornbuds. Be generous, cut off plenty, so you have a good view of the working area. It is best to have at least 5 mm of clear area beyond the diameter of the iron. The less hair to get into the wounds, the less likely an infection can occur. Take your time, and trim off all the hair between the hornbuds. For buck kids, trim further forward and further back than for doe kids, as the procedure is slightly different.
  4. Mark the centre of the hornbud with the felt tip pen. For some kids this mightn’t seem necessary but it is a good habit to get into, because with coloured kids and all buck kids, you will need the dot as a guide.
  5. Next, fold the kid’s ears back under your spare hand and hold them tight to the sides of the head – this keeps the ears out of your way, and the head still. I also rest the kid’s chin on my thigh.
  6. For doe kids: aim to get the green dot in the centre of the iron when you lower it firmly to the head. If you aren’t firm the kid will wriggle out from under and the wrong things are likely to get scorched. The kid will undulate and yell as you press down, rotating the iron slightly until you feel it grate on the skull. Make sure the grating is right round the circumference of the iron. Once you are through the skin all round, the kid should stop yelling (Alpines don’t always) as you have killed all the nerves.
  7. Lift off the iron and use the edge of it to flick the hornbud out of the centre of the burn. If you don’t flip it out, it can re-attach and the kid grows horns.
  8. Once you have flipped the bud out, use the edge of the iron to sear the damp skull dry. This helps seal off the temporal artery if your original burn hasn’t completed the job. Some kids can bleed slightly, but often just on one bud.
  9. Now that the bud is done to your satisfaction, use the penknife to clean any detritus from the iron. Make sure the muck doesn’t land on the kid’s head.
  10. Now do the other hornbud the same way. Dust the wounds with the powder of your choice and return the kid to its owner/mother/mates.
  11. Clean the iron again, wipe the penknife and dunk the blade in the meths. You are now ready to do the next kid.
  12. Bucks grow their horns in ridges forward and inwards, and their musk glands are inward and backward, so disbudding aims to deal with both horn growth and demusking. If your iron is small diameter, you may need to do three burns. A wider diameter iron will need only one burn, but it must be in the right place.
  13. The green dot on the hornbud needs to be off-centre of the iron this time, with more of the iron’s head towards the centre of the skull and slightly forward. If you are behind the kid’s head, like me, the left green dot should be 8 o’clock from the centre of the iron, and the right green dot at 4 o’clock. See diagram.
  14. At first sight, it seems simpler to hold the kid’s head still by gripping the nose. But, if it wriggles hard enough, or the disbudding is a long job for some reason, you can restrict its breathing, so this makes it panic and wriggle harder, or throttle it altogether (I know 2 men this happened to), or leave a deep groove across the side of the nose from your thumb pressing into the soft bone, and the goat goes through the rest of its life with a wry face. I did this to one of mine, which is why I developed the over-the-ears grip.

Working from behind the kid means you are at a better angle to the buds, as they slope backwards and it is easier to burn through to the skull at the back if you are at that angle, especially if the buds have been allowed to get a little too big.

Disbudding is usually done cold turkey because goats are bad subjects for anaesthesia. For safety’s sake the kid needs to be at least a week-old for anaesthetic, and by this time the hornbuds can be well overripe especially in bucks.

Disbudding takes about 2 minutes all up, and once it is done, the kid isn’t bothered (I’ve heard a human baby scream for 20 minutes after being vaccinated) – it is much like a trip to the dentist, except for a kid, it only happens once. However, a kid will take 12-24 hours to throw off the effects of a general anaesthetic, during which time it must be kept warm and carefully monitored in case of pneumonia from lying around too long. If the weather is very hot heatstroke is a real risk post-anaesthetic, too. The kid may be slow to start feeding. A kid under general anaesthetic screams and thrashes round more than one done cold turkey, something to do with the way goats’ nerves work, so that the tendency is to increase the anaesthetic which endangers the kid’s chance of survival.

Using local anaesthetic infiltration round the hornbuds appears to cause as much pain as it saves, and has the disadvantage of making the working area (the tissue being burnt) thicker and wetter, with a greater chance of infection because of this. Also, local anaesthetic has an anti-clotting action on the blood and the temporal artery may prove difficult to seal in consequence. I haven’t heard of anyone using spray-on anaesthetic, principally because of the cost factor, I should imagine, as the strength required would probably be about $30 per kid just for the drug. Cold turkey is kinder on both kids and their humans.

Disbudded kids need to be kept dry for a few hours after the job so that the body’s own healing liquids can seal off the wounds to prevent infection, so don’t disbud on a wet day if you can help it.


Be careful not to let milk splashes get into the wounds.

These precautions must be maintained until the scabs drop off, usually about 6 weeks later. Occasionally a kid will knock a scab off early and bleed. Dust the wound with your chosen antibiotic powder.

More occasionally still, a kid will get an infection. This usually looks like grains of raw sugar and the surrounding skin will be reddened. The kid may throw its head from side to side and yowl. Drench it with ½ a soluble aspirin in a little water to fix the headache and lower the inflammation, and spray the infected wound with iodine, having first put your other hand over the kid’s eyes. The iodine dries and heals the infection. If all your kids get infections, the questions are:

  • Was the iron hot enough?
  • Did they get milk splashes?
  • Did some stupid * put fingers or cloths in the wounds?

I always instruct children as well as parents that they must not touch, because it is an unfortunate fact of modern life that many children don’t obey their parents any more, and in extreme cases, kids can die of disbudding infections which shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Regrowth of scurs is fairly common in bucks as they have such strong horn growth, and sometimes happens in does. The bits are usually loose and get knocked off in the ordinary give and take of herd life. You should not need to interfere unless a scur does a U-ey and starts growing into the goat’s head. The easiest way to remove it is to grip the scur firmly with a pair of slip-joint pliers, the goat does a big objecting wriggle complaining mightily, and you should be left holding the scur while the goat scarpers, somewhat bloody but unbowed. If the scur is firmly anchored to the head, use a bolt-cutter or wire saw to cut through the scur at the arch of the U. That way you are releasing the pressure on the skull, but you shouldn’t hit blood. The scur often grows off in a different and safer direction. If you do hit blood and it pulses out (that temporal artery again) slapping on some stockholm tar (from the saddler) will stop it. A scur which has come off with the slip-joint pliers is only a surface attachment and the blood will clot in a few minutes. On the rare occasion it doesn’t, Stockholm tar is again the best dressing.

It is not a good idea to disbud for an audience unless they are well out of your light, and far enough back so that if they faint they won’t flatten you and the kid with the hot iron under you. For preference, any viewers should be seated, or at least those closest to the demonstrator.

– Irene Ramsay.
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I am acquainted with Irene Ramsay through the Holistic Goats list on Yahoo Groups. I read all of her posts as they are always full of wisdom and natural remedies for healing. I am honored that Irene Ramsay has agreed to allow me to publish some of her articles on my website. I hope they will be as helpful to you as they have been to me. Thanks, Irene! Please note that Irene lives in New Zealand and sometimes the items she recommends won’t be available in the US under the same name. Copyright 1974-2020 Irene Ramsay. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy without express permission of the author. Thank you.